Whistleblowers at the Department of Veterans Affairs were significantly more likely to face disciplinary action than their colleagues, according to a new report.
The Government Accountability Office found that VA whistleblowers were 10 times more likely than other employees to be hit with a disciplinary action within a year of reporting misconduct. They were also eight times more likely to face discipline a year after their report.
"Data and whistleblower testimony indicate that retaliation may have occurred at the VA," GAO said.
The report includes data on misconduct in the VA from between 2009 and 2015 and a sample of whistleblower disclosures reported between 2010 and 2014. In addition to the disciplinary action data, GAO said that interviews with six whistleblowers at the agency indicated that retaliation at the agency was a possibility.
The whistleblowers claimed that superiors took "untraceable" steps to retaliate against them such as preventing them from accessing computer equipment needed for work, according to the GAO report.
In addition, the GAO report suggests that allegations of misconduct against senior VA officials are not adequately investigated. Based on a review of 23 cases that the VA Office of Inspector General referred to VA facilities for additional investigation, the watchdog agency found that the VA often failed to respond to the OIG in a timely manner or provide additional documentation.
The VA also failed to hold some senior officials accountable for their actions, according to the report. Proposed disciplinary actions were not carried out in five of 17 cases of substantiated misconduct.
Other concerns raised by the report include the VA's lack of measures to ensure that investigations are carried by neutral third parties and situations in which managers accused of misconduct investigated their own cases. GAO offered several recommendations for how the VA could address these concerns, including suggesting the agency implement new guidance to address gaps in the investigation process and ensure that disciplinary actions are carried out.
Senate pushing for quick vote on Wilkie's nomination
The Senate is scheduled to vote on Robert Wilkie's nomination to head the VA on Monday afternoon.
Sen. Johnny Isakson called on the chamber to quickly confirm Wilkie on Thursday, days after a report in The Washington Post alleged that several officials are being purged ahead of his confirmation for being disloyal to the president.
Isakson, a Georgia Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs, said it's crucial that staffing decisions are made by a secretary who can be held accountable.
"It is of utmost importance that any policy changes that impact the future of the department be made by a confirmed secretary who can be held accountable by Congress and the American people," Isakson said.
Isakson's statement follows a report in The Washington Post earlier this week that alleged VA staffers who are "loyalists" to President Donald Trump were working to purge staffers they viewed as insufficiently loyal to the commander-in-chief.
"These are people who have served multiple administrations," one employee who was moved to a different role told the newspaper, "but they only want them to serve the Trump administration. You can't run a department like that."