VA whistleblower is the one facing punishment


Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez, the Veterans Affairs (VA) hospital employee in Arizona who brought attention to the fact that there was a secret, appointment waiting list and that dozens of would-be patients had died, is now facing punishment for publicly revealing the name of a colleague he claims harassed him afterward.

Rodriguez is a scheduling clerk at the VA who became the first whistleblower to disclose ongoing misconduct and has been dealing with a hostile work environment ever since.

However, now he is also facing a punishment, which ranges from “reprimand to removal,” according to Fox News, for sending the media “a copy of an email he wrote to the hospital director that detailed alleged harassment and included the name of a colleague as one of the top offenders.”

According to the VA, Rodriguez will be punished for violating “privacy standards you are expected to enforce [and] breaching your responsibilities as a supervisor.”

Rodriguez admits that he did name the assistant who had criticized him in front of veterans and others, but he thinks the reprimand is a way for the VA to get back at him for his role as a whistleblower.

“Just reporting someone’s name shouldn’t be secret — we are government employees,” Rodriguez told reporters, adding, “They are trying to twist anything they can to punish me.”

In a report released in October 2016, “the VA Inspector General’s Office (OIG) found that 215 deceased patients had open appointments at the Phoenix facility on the day they died.”

Just last November, Rodriguez reported to the VA’s inspector general that “90 veterans still were waiting more than 400 days for care and five had died without seeing a doctor. In February, he filed another complaint alleging more than 4,000 veterans had their appointments inexplicably canceled by the Phoenix VA after they already had waited more than 180 days,” according to documents.

Rodriguez inspired other VA workers to do what he did, and whistleblowers throughout the country began telling their own VA horror stories. For instance, Brandon Coleman, a counselor in the Phoenix facility, told the inspector general that many suicidal veterans were not being cared for in a timely manner.

While waiting for their complaints to be dealt with, Coleman and Rodriguez have been dealing with ongoing harassment at work.

In memos he sent to the Office of Special Counsel, Rodriguez recalled that his desk had been moved into a closet with no air conditioning, an expected promotion didn’t happen, he was subjected to racial slurs, and he was given an increased workload. Yet, he’s now the one in trouble.

“The Department of Veterans Affairs is obligated to ensure the confidentiality of its beneficiaries’ and employees’ personal identifying information,” according to a statement from the VA. “Employees are expected to act in a manner that is consistent with VA’s core values of Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, and Excellence. Leadership should take action to ensure the safety of our patients and staff and preserve the integrity of our mission within applicable laws and regulations.”

Rodriguez has until April 13 to respond to the VA’s accusation.

In response to the situation, Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, stated, “It is unacceptable that any law-abiding whistleblower would be punished for bringing the issues within VA to light.” Roe has introduced legislation which should “enhance whistleblower protections and allow for easier suspension, demotion or firing of bad employees.”

Known as the VA Accountability First Act of 2017, the bill would forbid the VA from suspending or firing any employee without permission from the Special Counsel and also shortens the amount of time the VA takes to investigate alleged misconduct.

According to David Snyder, executive director of a free speech advocacy group called the First Amendment Coalition: “To threaten discipline up to and included firing seems at the very least heavy-handed; it’s not like the Social Security or bank account numbers were released.”

Snyder further commented, asking, “Is the mere existence of an employee’s name secret or to be withheld from the public? Certainly not. The mere existence of a name isn’t something they are entitled to redact in document requests.”

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is frequently used by journalists to obtain documents, including emails, naming the sender and recipient.

“What is redactable is medical, personnel or similar files,” Snyder said. “As a general matter, that is understood to mean sensitive private information. Just a name, by itself, does not fall into that category.”

H/T: Fox News

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