Amid scandal brought by a rash of veteran suicides in Atlanta, the local VA leadership in 2013 became fixated on stemming bad press coverage and set their sights on an employee whose job was to keep the public informed, a new federal investigation found.
A federal Office of Special Counsel (OSC) report out Wednesday said the Atlanta VA Medical Center retaliated against public affairs officer Greg Kendall after he raised concerns about a misuse of tax dollars by the hospital’s leadership. Kendall, who was facing demotion in 2015, will have his job restored, the report said. He will be paid an undisclosed amount for the damages related to the retaliation.
Kendall, whose job includes answering questions from the public and reporters, had raised concerns to his superiors about a plan to donate $35,000 to a local charity at a time when the VA was facing public criticism about underfunding at the hospital’s mental health unit, the report said.
After an August 2013 story appeared on WSB-TV about the donation, the VA Atlanta leadership assumed he had been the source of the story and started retaliating against him. They stripped him of his duties, moved his office and changed his job performance goals.
“Mr. Kendall did the right thing by raising concerns about an inappropriate expenditure of taxpayer dollars, but the Atlanta VA failed to heed his warnings and instead targeted Mr. Kendall,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner, whose office investigates claims of retaliation by whistleblowers across the federal government.
Lerner’s office also announced a settlement between the VA and Kendall to resolve his whistleblower retaliation claim. The one-page report by Lerner’s office shows that as late as 2015, the VA was planning to demote Kendall as part of an effort to censor information getting to veterans and the public.
“I still don’t know who our mole is,” one unnamed VA official wrote in a message, adding that public information officers should be cut out of email exchanges.
The report is the latest example of misconduct and accountability problems across the VA. The agency, which provides health care to nearly 9 million veterans and has more than 300,000 employees, was wracked by scandal in 2014 as an epidemic of health and safety issues came to light across the system of 152 hospitals.
The AJC and other news outlets reported at the time about widespread whistleblower retaliation within the VA. The Office of Special Counsel has been inundated with complaints from VA whistleblowers. In 2015, the office received more than 2,000 cases and Lerner has raised concerns in about the lack of accountability in the agency.
In a letter to President Obama in September 2015, Lerner outlined how VA whistleblowers exposed problems at the agency, including deficient patient care and dishonesty that put patients at risk.
“The lack of accountability in these cases stands in stark contrast to the disciplinary actions taken against VA whistleblowers,” Lerner wrote. “The VA has attempted to fire or suspend whistleblowers for minor indiscretions and, often, for activity directly related to the employee’s whistleblowing.”
None of the officials who carried out the retaliation against Kendall were named in the OSC summary released Wednesday. The Atlanta VA director in charge at the time of the retaliation against Kendall was Leslie Wiggins. She was promoted last year to oversee VA hospitals across the southeast. The AJC requested an interview with Wiggins on Thursday, but an agency spokesman in Washington said she was not available.
The spokesman, Randy Noller, issued a statement, but it did not address whether anyone would be held accountable for the retaliation outlined by Lerner’s office.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs works closely, and in good faith with the Office of Special Counsel to correct deficiencies in the Department’s processes and programs,” the VA statement said. “Our goal is to ensure fair treatment for any whistleblower who raises a hand to identify a problem, make a suggestion or report what may be a violation in law, policy or VA’s core values.”
Employee had 30 years active duty
Kendall spent 30 years in active service in the Army, many of them as a public information officer. He served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and joined VA in Atlanta as a public affairs officer after retiring from the Army in 2007. He remains a public affairs officer at the Atlanta VA, but declined to comment, saying he would let the Office of Special Counsel report speak for itself.
The OSC facilitated the agreement between VA and Kendall that was signed last month. It outlines the clinical approach that VA took to retaliate against employees who spoke up.
Just months after creating new performance standards for Kendall, the agency said he wasn’t meeting them and put him on a performance improvement plan. In early 2015, the Atlanta VA was getting ready to demote Kendall when Lerner’s office negotiated a stay while it conducted its investigation.
Kendall will remain as a public affairs officer at the Atlanta VA, but under the agreement he has a different chain of command.
“While the VA has now appropriately resolved Mr. Kendall’s claims, the VA must continue working to make its culture more welcoming to whistleblowers in all of its facilities,” Lerner said.