ANOTHER LITTLE PEEK INTO THE WORLD OF THE U.S. DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS. HOW HAS ALL THIS GONE SO WRONG?
LUKE ROSIAKInvestigative Reporter11:09 PM 08/30/2016 After ethics officials blocked the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) from firing a woman who refused to lie for top bosses, the bosses took a different tack: paying her $305,000 to quit and agree not to apply to the VA again.Her bosses tried to force Rosayma Lopez to write a critical report to be used to terminate Joseph Colon, who had exposed the drunk-driving and illegal-prescription drug arrest of Dewayne Hamlin, director of the VA’s hospital in San Juan.When Lopez said she would stick to the facts, her bosses filed the termination paperwork intended for Colon against her instead.After she sought protection from the Office of Special Counsel (OSC), a federal agency that investigates whistleblower retaliation in government, OSC ordered VA to restore Lopez to her job. But VA refused, instead paying her to sit at home for nine months.When OSC reiterated the demand, VA reluctantly restored her job, but then offered her $150,000 to quit and agree not to re-apply. Lopez declined the offer, which she had never requested, and made clear she just wanted to keep her job.Lopez’s job involves processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, so VA officials worried she could disclose embarrassing information to future requesters. She was assigned a new boss, who insisted on handling FOIA responses himself, by telling requesters they would be charged thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. To justify the exorbitant charges, he claimed that simple requests that would take five minutes to fulfill would require dozens of hours of top staffers’ time.Lopez was also moved into a trailer without basic equipment needed to do her job like a scanner. She applied for an identical job at another VA hospital, but was never interviewed. The settlement offer was upped to $305,000.The $305,000 offer is still on the table, but Lopez must weigh it against the loss of health insurance and a pension, and the moral implications of taking money to go away quietly after witnessing misconduct.The offer is remarkable, because the VA officials it appears designed to protect — those who are seeking her ouster — have faced no discipline or other consequences, despite repeated declarations by department leaders in Washington, D.C. that retaliation against whistle blowers will not be tolerated.Financial settlements with employees are generally signed by someone in the department headquarters, but VA spokesman James Hutton would not say if Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald supports the $305,000 payment to Lopez.Spokesman Nick Schwellenbach told The Daily Caller News Foundation that OSC isn’t a party to settlement offers, and simply relays management offers, so the complainant can decide on their own whether to accept them. He said investigations that would lead to OSC punishing retaliators, in cases where an agency refuses to punish its own managers, are separate and would take significantly longer.“Our first priority is to try to make a whistleblower whole. For many whistleblowers, that means simply getting back to work and that is what most settlements involve. There are situations, however, where the two parties negotiate the employee’s departure from the agency in exchange for agreed upon terms,” Schwellenbach said.Colon wrote to OSC expressing disappointment at its handling of the Lopez case.“I have the utmost respect for your office but I am truly disappointed that your office would accept any agreement that requires a whistleblower to resign from their job to protect unethical employees at the VA,” Colon wrote.“There should be no discussions that require money in exchange for a whistleblower resignation. We should be embracing whistleblowers, and not trying to get rid of them. American taxpayer money should be used to treat Veterans, and to hold retaliators accountable and not used to silence whistleblowers,” he wrote.The Puerto Rico facility is among the most troubled VA hospitals in the country. As TheDCNF has previously reported, a convicted sex offender works in the facility’s human resources doling out employee discipline.In addition, the supervisor of a major purchase office was hired only weeks after being released from federal prison for credit card theft.And OSC found in 2015 that hospital staff left veterans lying in their own feces for days. The woman in charge of the troubled unit was subsequently promoted.
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