- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 14, 2014

Veterans Affairs officials say the days of retaliation are over as they encourage whistleblowers to come forward, but Joseph Colon-Christensen isn’t so sure.

Last month, he reported to VA officials in Washington on the April arrest of a high-ranking official who oversees nearly a dozen medical centers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. That same day, Mr. Colon-Christensen says he lost his credentialing privileges and was detailed to a new job.

Later, after VA Caribbean director DeWayne Hamlin was contacted for a news story about his Florida arrest on drunken driving and drug possession charges, Mr. Colon-Christensen said he received a 21-day notice of possible termination.

“They’re coming after me for opposing discriminatory practices, which is my duty, and they’re using that as an excuse to come after me because of the arrest,” said Mr. Colon-Christensen in a phone interview.

Neither of the notices, which Mr. Colon-Christensen provided to The Washington Times, mentions the arrest of Mr. Hamlin, but he and his attorney say the timing of both job actions are troubling.

The Times reported last Monday that Mr. Hamlin was charged with possession of a controlled substance and driving while intoxicated. The charges were later dropped. In a memo, the Pasco County State’s Attorney’s Office cited “concerns about the stop.”

Mr. Hamlin was arrested after a sheriff’s deputy spotted him in a parked car after 1 a.m. The VA official refused a Breathalyzer and field sobriety tests, and told the officer that he did not have a prescription for an oxycodone pill found in his shirt pocket, according to an arrest report.

Mr. Hamlin told The Times that the arrest was a misunderstanding and that he was being treated for a medical condition. He declined to discuss the arrest report, saying he did not want to discuss his personal medical information.

Mr. Colon-Christensen said he notified VA officials in Washington on Aug. 21 about the arrest. He said he was concerned that a medical director was stopped with a controlled substance.

Mr. Colon-Christensen’s attorney, Ruy V. Diaz-Diaz, said the timing of the notices “raises the question of whether or not this is another way of retaliating against an employee who happens to be whistleblowing,” he said.

Asked about claims of retaliation, Mr. Hamlin declined to comment in an email Thursday, saying officials could not discuss personnel matters.

VA officials had no comment on the specifics of Mr. Colon-Christensen’s accusations. But spokeswoman Walinda West pointed to statements by new VA Secretary Bob McDonald on Monday calling whistleblower retaliation “unacceptable and intolerable.”

“We are working hard to create and sustain a climate that embraces constructive dissent, welcomes critical feedback and ensures compliance with legal requirements,” Mr. McDonald told reporters. “That climate mandates commitment to whistleblower protections to all employees.”

Mr. Colon-Christiansen, who is a veteran himself, said his job woes got worse when he raised concerns to VA officials that Mr. Hamlin had gotten a “free pass” after his arrest.

That day, Mr. Colon-Christiansen said he received a “detail notice” placing him on unclassified duties and removing him from his job in the VA credentialing and privileges office. He said he was moved into a position handling calls on the switchboard.

Then, on Sept. 5, he said he received a notice of proposal removal for unauthorized disclosure of information and other charges that were based on an email that Mr. Colon-Christensen sent in October.

In that email, sent to an individual who had filed a complaint in a separate job matter, Mr. Colon-Christensen offered to “send you some documents that might help you when I raised a flag about unfair job announcements in [detail].”

David Schleicher, an attorney who handles federal employee cases but who is not involved in the Colon-Christiansen case, said the VA should be attentive to even the appearance of whistleblower retaliation “given recent events.”

“A short time gap between whistleblowing and the adverse actions creates a strong presumption they are related if the employee can show the adverse action was not already planned,” he said.

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