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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

GAP Files WPA Complaint for Founding Member of VA Truth Tellers

John Whitty, August 01, 2017

Army Veteran, Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA) employee Christopher “Shea” Wilkes first disclosed secret patient wait lists at the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, in 2013, and the retaliation soon followed.

Early last month, GAP and co-counsel Richard M. John, of Smith & John, Attorneys at Law, Shreveport, Louisiana, filed a retaliation complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) on behalf of Mr. Wilkes.

Mr. Wilkes made his first disclosures to the OSC in December 2013, and by the end of the following year, OSC had found a “substantial likelihood” that he had disclosed a violation of law, rule, or regulation and a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety. The OSC ordered the VA to investigate.

Mr. Wilkes had disclosed systematic efforts by local VA leadership to “game” the patient wait lists and disguise the breakdown of Veterans’ healthcare delivery—all so annual performance bonuses would be maximized. He disclosed to Congress the existence of “secret” patient wait lists maintained on paper, created to keep up appearances that the Veterans were receiving timely access to care. He disclosed to the VA Office of Inspector General (VA OIG) the practice of reporting a veteran as having received a psychiatric consultation, when he or she had only spoken with a counselor.

Mr. Wilkes persistently brought these disclosures, and others, to the attention of his supervisors, the senior leadership at Overton Brooks, the VA OIG, the OSC, and Congress. After a whitewash internal investigation by the VA, the OSC found the VA’s report to be incomplete and unresponsive to the issues, and told the President as much when the VA’s sham report was published.

As a Veteran, Mr. Wilkes is especially committed to caring for America’s Veterans, “who shall have borne the battle.” He helped mobilize support for other VA employees facing hostility and retaliation for whistleblowing by being a pioneer member of the VA Truth Tellers, a group of like-minded people around the country committed to the best possible care for Veterans (https://www.facebook.com/VA.Truth.Tellers/). He has testified before Congress[1] and he is frequently quoted in the media on issues concerning Veterans, whistleblowing, and the VA.

For his troubles, the medical center leadership forced Mr. Wilkes to apply for his own position: he was not selected. The agency subjected him to a retaliatory criminal investigation, a hostile work environment, and removal of duties; it denied him promotions and reassignments thirty-two times since his first disclosures, and it admonished him for not signing an illegal anti-gag order that VA leadership wanted to use to put an end to his disclosures. The vindication of Mr. Wilkes’ rights and the official acknowledgment of Mr. Wilkes’ service to the VA and to America’s Veterans continue with the filing of this complaint.

Mr. Wilkes’ retaliation complaint also presents an early opportunity to test the operation of the newly created VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. With its mandate to “protect employees who lawfully disclose wrongdoing from retaliation,” balanced against its powers of removal with less due process than statutorily available for other civil servants, a new tension between truth tellers and institutional retaliation has yet to be defined. GAP stands by, prepared to assist with defining these new boundaries. Mr. Wilkes is to be commended for his courage to speak up for Veterans, despite the institutional hostility against whistleblowers that has been rampant at the VA.

 


[1] Improving VA Accountability: Examining First-Hand Accounts of Department of Veterans Affairs Whistleblowers, https://www.hsgac.senate.gov/hearings/improving-va-accountability-examining-first-hand-accounts-of-department-of-veterans-affairs-whistleblowers (September 22, 2015) (at 41:00).