- Associated Press - Friday, June 13, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) - A private watchdog organization investigating problems in the Veterans Affairs Department defied a federal subpoena Friday to turn over to the Obama administration materials it received from federal whistleblowers.

The directive ordered the Washington-based Project on Government Oversight to surrender copies of all records and identifying information from federal employees or others who submitted complaints about the VA, which they believed would remain anonymous. POGO said the material was digitally encrypted when the group received it.

The organization, which earned awards earlier this week by the Society of Professional Journalists for investigative and business reporting, deliberately ignored the order by the veterans agency’s inspector general to turn over the files by 10 a.m. Friday, POGO spokesman Joe Newman said.

The counselor to the inspector general, Maureen Regan, told The Associated Press the group would be given until the end of the business day Friday before the government decided how or whether to respond. That could include seeking court sanctions against POGO, negotiating for the records or dropping the matter entirely.

“We assumed they weren’t coming,” Regan said.

POGO, which discloses government misconduct and advocates for whistleblower protections, had set up a secure website, vaoversight.org, to solicit complaints from insiders about fraud, waste or abuse inside the Veterans Affairs Department. It included instructions to “maximize your security and anonymity” and promised whistleblowers it would “protect your identity while trying to expose and remedy the problems you have identified.”

“Unless you have already been publicly labeled as a whistleblower, we usually do not recommend making your identity public and exposing yourself to the many risks associated with doing so,” the website warned.

The VA’s acting inspector general, Richard J. Griffin, is investigating whether the agency provided timely care to veterans at its medical center in Phoenix. In an administrative subpoena Griffin issued May 30, he ordered POGO to turn over records of any complaints it received from current or former employees or others about the Phoenix facility and all other VA medical centers. Administrative subpoenas are not approved by a judge.

The group’s executive director, Danielle Brian, asked Griffin in a letter June 9 to revoke the subpoena. She said POGO would not turn over the records and to do so would cause “irreparable harm” to the organization because whistleblowers would be suspicious it couldn’t protect their confidentiality. She called the subpoena “little more than an invasive fishing expedition” and said it infringed on the group’s freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of association.

The Obama administration earlier this year issued new rules limiting the Justice Department from issuing subpoenas for obtaining records from news media organizations in leaks investigations. Those new rules followed disclosures that the Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed telephone records for reporters and editors for the AP, and also had secretly used a search warrant to obtain emails of a Fox News journalist as part of a separate investigation.

POGO earlier this week won the Dateline Award for investigative reporting from its local chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for its project on lax security at U.S. embassies overseas. It also won a business journalism award for its reporting on efforts by former employees of the Securities and Exchange Commission to influence regulations.

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