In response to congressional requests and allegations made to the OIG’s Hotline, the Office of Special Reviews examined whether VA was properly implementing aspects of the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017. This examination reviewed the operations of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) from June 2017 through December 2018. The OIG also reviewed operational changes implemented by new OAWP leadership as of August 2019.
Specifically, the review focused on determining whether the OAWP exercised its legal authority appropriately; conducted adequate, thorough, and procedurally fair investigations; and protected whistleblowers from retaliation. The OIG examined whether VA employees were held accountable using the Act’s authorities and whether VA complied with other Act requirements, including timely and accurate reporting to Congress.
The OIG identified significant deficiencies within each area of inquiry, including OAWP misinterpreting its statutory mandate. The OIG determined OAWP referred out matters it should have investigated to VA entities (without appropriately protecting whistleblowers’ identities). OAWP also investigated matters outside its authority. Former OAWP leaders made avoidable mistakes that distracted from the OAWP’s core mission and undermined the confidence of some whistleblowers, chilling reporting.
A lack of clear written guidance for OAWP personnel contributed to the inaccuracy, perceived bias, and lack of thoroughness in investigations—causing some disciplinary officials to reduce proposed disciplinary sanctions. Insufficient safeguards put whistleblowers at risk of becoming the subject of retaliatory investigations, and in one troubling instance OAWP initiated an investigation that could itself be considered retaliatory. Other failures related to whistleblower protection training, congressional reporting, and disclosing routine uses of information.
The OAWP’s current Assistant Secretary started implementing changes after taking office in January 2019. Given the magnitude of the challenges, significant enhancements are needed to fulfill the Act’s requirements and the office’s mission. VA concurred with the OIG’s 22 recommendations.