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So far, VA not firing those who retaliated against whistleblowers

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald speaks at a news conference at the Veterans Affairs Department in Washington, Monday, Sept. 8, 2014. McDonald discussed his visits with VA facilities across the country and outline his priorities. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta) AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

The Department of Veterans Affairs is refusing to say it will fire employees involved in retaliating against whistleblowers who helped publicize the VA health care scandal, even though it says it won't tolerate retaliation.

The VA announced Monday that it reached a settlement with three VA employees who were victims of retaliation after they spoke up against shoddy VA practices. But while the existence of settlements indicates that some retaliatory actions did take place, the VA is silent on whether or how any of the retaliators might be punished.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert McDonald says retaliation against VA whistleblowers won't be tolerated, but so far, the VA seems to be tolerating retaliators. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Instead, the VA released a statement saying retaliation won't be tolerated.

"At VA, we take whistleblower complaints seriously and will not tolerate retaliation against those who raise issues which may enable VA to better serve veterans," said VA Secretary Robert McDonald.

When asked for more details about what steps might be taken, a VA spokeswoman said retaliation against whistleblowers is "not tolerated." She said the VA is reviewing the cases and that "disciplinary actions will be forthcoming where claims were substantiated."

But that answer is far from indicating that swift disciplinary action will be taken. Earlier this year, Congress passed legislation that allows the VA secretary to immediately fire anyone for poor performance, but McDonald does not appear to have used this authority yet.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R-Fla.) said Monday that in his view, the three retaliation settlements are just the latest opportunity the VA has missed to show that it's serious about getting rid of employees involved in the scandal and the coverup.

"The fact that VA has reached settlement agreements with these employees is at least a tacit admission from the department that its actions were wrong," Miller said.

"But the key question VA leaders must answer now is 'what has the department done to hold accountable those who retaliated against these employees?' " he asked. "Until VA officials at all levels take aggressive action to fire all managers who have sought to punish employees for exposing fraud, waste and abuse within the system, I have no confidence VA's shameful treatment of whistleblowers will end any time soon."

According to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, three VA workers won relief for claims that they were retaliated against by others at the VA.

One was Katherine Mitchell, who disclosed inadequate staffing and other problems at the Phoenix VA system. She was reinstated to a position that will let her oversee quality care issues.

The second was Paula Pedene, who disclosed financial mismanagement issues at Phoenix and faced retaliation. She was reassigned to a communications position within the VA.

The third was Damian Reese, who noted long patient wait times at VA. He also settled and remains in his current position.

Both the Office of Special Counsel and the VA noted that the settlement details in each of these cases are confidential, making it impossible to say how much the settlements cost taxpayers, either in the form of one-time payouts, salary increases or other compensation.

— This story was corrected to note that all three whistleblowers still work at the VA. An earlier version said only two were still employed at the VA.

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