The Veterans Administration’s Inspector General recently penned a scathing letter regarding how the VA handles complaints. Of all the whistleblower retaliation complaints across the federal government, nearly 40% of them come from the VA. An NPR reporter, Eric Westervelt, investigated a VA district that includes Alabama and Georgia.
Mr. Westervelt interviewed Retired Colonel Cynthia Chavez who has more than 40 years of combined VA and Army service. She was hired in June 2014 to lead the VA’s Food and Nutrition Service in central Alabama and soon discovered serious problems. Some employees routinely came in late, left early, or did not show up at all; one even drank openly on the job. And a longtime employee was running a catering business out of the VA’s kitchen in Tuskegee on the side.
This employee was stealing food meant only for veterans who were being treated in the hospital, and Colonel Chavez could not determine how much food had been stolen. The Colonel moved to suspend the employee and investigate further. Shortly thereafter, Colonel Chavez began to receive anonymous threats, such as: “This isn’t the Army where you had connections. This is the VA and we will get you.” Formal complaints from the local union soon followed, and Colonel Chavez was eventually investigated for abuse of authority. In January 2018, she was forced to resign, while the woman who stole the VA’s food was allowed to retire with full benefits.
Unfortunately, Colonel Chavez’s experience is hardly extraordinary. Mr. Westervelt explained: “Interviews with nearly 30 current and ex staffers backed up by emails, legal documents, and data from the VA paint a picture of toxic culture of intimidation and reprisals, a place where employees are routinely bullied, belittled, and harassed if they raise any serious allegations.”