- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2015

Staff at the VA’s Cleveland medical center destroyed records into the death of a patient to avoid unwanted publicity, then punished a whistleblower and put her under surveillance after she revealed lapses in the patient’s care, the woman charged in a recent complaint.

Patricia Leligdon said superiors began retaliating against her in 2010 after she reported that VA medical staff could have done more to prevent the death of a veteran who died after an “altercation” with another veteran at a VA outpatient mental health clinic, according to a federal whistleblower lawsuit she recently filed against the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The accusations come as the VA tries to assure its own employees and Congress that whistleblowers won’t be retaliated against for reporting on patient safety and management problems.

The VA’s previous secretary, Eric K. Shinseki, was ousted last year after a scandal into the falsification of wait time data, which surfaced because of complaints from whistleblowers.

Ms. Leligdon, whose attorney could not be immediately reached for comment, says in her complaint that the retaliation occurred before and after the VA’s change in leadership. And the complaint says she wasn’t the only employee at the VA’s Cleveland Medical Center subject to retaliation for voicing concerns about the workplace, according to the complaint.

“This cultural attribute is part of a broader culture of suppressing criticism by engaging in reprisals against those who engage in criticism or otherwise associated with such critics,” the complaint states.

VA officials declined to comment on the accusations or the extent to which the agency utilizes surveillance to monitor its own employees in and out of the workplace.

“The case is being handled by the US Attorney’s office and is ongoing so I am unable to comment,” VA spokeswoman Ashley Trimble wrote in an email.

Ms. Leligdon, who supervised a staff of about a dozen social workers, said she was told not to go public with her belief that the VA could have done more for the patient in 2010, according to her complaint.

She also said that during a February 2011 VA ethics panel meeting, which she attended through a conference call, an unnamed caller referred to information that another employee was going to disclose through social media sites that “would have destroyed” the Cleveland VA medical center’s reputation.

According to Ms. Leligdon, the caller said a VA privacy official destroyed the evidence the other person would have disclosed, and the privacy official later issued a memo cautioning employees about a prohibition against sharing information about “personal activities occurring within the medical center” on social media.

The name of the veteran who died is not disclosed in the complaint, but the lawsuit says Ms. Leligdon and other VA personnel received subpoenas to testify in a hearing that never took place because the case was settled.

She said she was passed over for promotions, blackballed by staff and subject to increasing surveillance, and she sent letters to Mr. Shinseki, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine about the “coverup of unlawful activity,” evidence destruction and the ongoing surveillance.

In March 2014 the VA medical center “stepped up its attacks” by issuing one disciplinary action after another and “escalating its unlawful surveillance” of Ms. Leligdon, she said in her complaint.

She said the retaliation continued even after the ouster of Mr. Shinseki and a June 13 memo by then-Acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson hailing the VA’s “unwavering” commitment to employee protections under the federal whistleblower statute.

Earlier this month, Rep. Jeff Miller, Florida Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told new VA Secretary Robert McDonald that his committee was investigating the agency’s treatment of whistleblowers.

He also called on the agency to turn over disciplinary records in the case of a VA credentialing official in Puerto Rico who says he was suspended after notifying the VA about the late-night drug arrest of a high-ranking official, who was ultimately cleared of the charges.

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