Government Whistleblowers

NOTE: Tune into the Federal News Network for a discussion on the importance of whistleblower protection taped on Friday August 23. Host Debra Roth sits down with Tom Devine, Legal Director of the Government Accountability Project; John Kostyack, Executive Director of the National Whistleblower Center; and Liz Hempowicz, Director of Public Policy at the Project on Government Oversight.”


Congressional investigators say they’ve been trying to get some answers about problems at the Coast Guard Academy for more than a year.

Finally, staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and the Committee on Homeland Security met with the Coast Guard Academy Dean Kurt Colella last week. He brought along the assistant academy superintendent, the Coast Guard’s House liaison, the agency’s chief of congressional affairs and the director of personnel readiness, according to committee members.

Apparently, none of them had much to say. Here’s how the meeting was described in a letter from lawmakers to the Commandant of the Coast Guard, Admiral Karl L. Schultz.

“Coast Guard officials indicated that pursuant to your orders, all of the Coast Guard personnel who were present at the meeting were directed to refuse to answer any questions regarding any past events at the Academy involving either faculty or cadets,  including any questions pertaining to the OIG’s report,” wrote Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) chair of the oversight committee and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) of the homeland security committee.    
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How bad is it at the Veteran’s Affair’s (VA) Whistleblower Protection Office? Former VA whistleblower Brandon Coleman took a job with the program in 2017. But, instead of helping other whistleblowers, he is now speaking out about the program’s failures. He described the scene there as a “dumpster fire.” After reading Donavan Slack’s ongoing coverage in USA Today of problems for both patients and staff, that sounds like an understatement. He told her:

“We need help,” Coleman said. “How can you treat your employees the exact way we’re trying to protect employees from being treated?”

Complaints about the whistleblower office are piling up and Slack’s reporting has been robust. Her latest story in USA Today offers this:

The onetime addiction counselor and Veterans Affairs whistleblower known for exposing poor care of suicidal veterans at the Phoenix VA hospital has been doing outreach to other VA whistleblowers since 2017 on behalf of President Donald Trump’s whistleblower-protection office

Coleman told USA TODAY he has learned from colleagues in recent weeks that he has been excluded from meetings, his program is being eliminated, and he and dozens of other employees at the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection are being asked to submit resumes and worry they could face possible demotion or worse.

Tamara Bonzanto, VA

She reports that Coleman has asked for help from “another federal agency that protects whistleblowers, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel.” Slack based her report on interviews with three other employees who say VA Assistant Secretary Tamara Bonzanto, who is in charge of the program,  has “cut herself off” from employees.
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The Washington Post has been running a series of stories on problems with forensic science. Radley Balko, a Post opinion writer focusing on civil liberties and the criminal-justice system, explains.

In covering these issues, I have found that there are lots of people willing to talk about the problems with forensics in the courtroom. But

The online news site The Intercept offers a thorough piece looking at how the federal government follows digital and paper trails to identify anonymous whistleblowers in their midst.The folks over at the Intercept should know. The source of one of their stories is sitting in jail.

The August 4 story looks at this and three other cases brought under the Espionage Act and notes:

The Intercept does not comment on its anonymous sources, although it has acknowledged falling short of its own editorial standards in one case. 

Last summer, National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Reality Winner accepted 63 months in prison in plea deal. Winner’s case made national headlines after she was identified as the leak of information on the Russian election hack that was reported by the Intercept. Since then, other whistleblowers have been arrested under the Espionage Act, a federal law that was created for spies, not whistleblowers.
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Note: To hear from whistleblowers themselves, tune into the National Whistleblower Day event on Tuesday.

The National Physicians Malpractice Database is supposed to protect patients. Now, one Vermont whistleblower says it is being used to punish her for filing a complaint against the former head of anesthesiology of White River Junction Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The Boston Globe reports that Dr. Jennifer Keller was fired in October after she leveled allegations of assault, medical negligence, and whistleblower retaliation against the doctor. She was one of four female employees at White River Junction who filed whistleblower complaints against Dr. Fima Lenkovsky with the VA’s Office of Special Counsel. The paper reports the agency is investigating the allegations after determining they contained a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing.”

The story notes that Keller continues to teach at Dartmouth College medical school. But her lawyer tells the Globe that the VA has accused Keller of delivering poor care and has reported her dismissal to the National Practitioner Data Bank. While not open to the public, the database can be used by health facilities to screen applicants.   

The story includes a quote that will sound familiar to anyone who has worked with whistleblowers.

“This has shaken me to my soul,” said Keller.“I am naive, and this has been an ugly process.”


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President Trump promised better protections for Veterans Affairs whistleblowers. But, VA staff say the office set up to protect them actually works against them.

On Tuesday, the head of the office testified that they would do better. From USA Today:

Tamara Bonzanto, who took over as assistant VA secretary overseeing the office in January, said she and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie “understand the sense of urgency to improve operations” and her staff is “actively working” to implement changes to “better protect whistleblowers.”

Also on Tuesday, a New Hampshire VA Medical Center doctor and whistleblower was killed in a one-car crash in Hampton, New Hampshire. William “Ed” Kois, MD, head of the Manchester VA’s spinal clinic, worked with the Boston Globe on a series of stories about poor care at the hospital. The reporting led to reforms and Kois “became the face of the whistleblowers,” according to a tribute in Manchester news site Ink Link. Kois called the VA’s ultimate dismissal of some of his claims “a complete whitewash.”

Whistleblowers have played key roles in exposing poor care at some of the nation’s VA hospitals. In June, the committee heard testimony from three VA health care employees who said agency officials have been trying to silence them since they reported patient care problems. Prior to that meeting, their stories were detailed by USA Today.

A report on the Tuesday hearing from a veteran’s run site called ConnectingVets offered some details of Bonzanto’s testimony.
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What happens to whistleblowers is often absurd, but rarely funny, win or lose. A Google search on “whistleblower jokes” turned up the one you see in the headline and a few New Yorker cartoons. So, there’s not much whistleblower humor out there. Last night, the television show “Drunk History” took a crack at it with a segment on whistleblowers.

If you are not familiar with the show, it features comedians who sit around, drink, giggle and recount episodes from history. Each segment includes the drunken narration over reenactments by well-known actors and comedians. Saturday Night Live-vet Vanessa Bayer lip-syncs would-be Watergate whistleblower Martha Mitchell. In a wink to DC, Tony Hall of Veep plays her husband John. The series manages to be annoying, informative and funny at the same time.

Who knew that Martha Mitchell, the wife of Richard Nixon’s attorney general, was drugged to keep her from blabbing to Helen Thomas of UPI about Watergate? No one knew about the Citizen’s Committee to Investigate the FBI until 2014. That’s when members of an anti-Vietnam War group revealed that, in 1971, they had used a crowbar to break into a local FBI office and steal evidence documenting FBI surveillance of lawful activists.
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“An employee of the Department of Housing and Urban Development may not ask his secretary to type his personal correspondence during duty hours.”

That is one example in the federal code of regulations of a personal task executive branch employees are not allowed to assign to government staff.

CNN reports that an unnamed congressional committee has been told by whistleblowers that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used members of his security patrol to pick up his dogs, his son and his Chinese food.

Democrats on a key House congressional committee are investigating allegations from a whistleblower within the State Department about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his family’s use of taxpayer-funded Diplomatic Security — prompting agents to lament they are at times viewed as “UberEats with guns”.

Congressional investigators, who asked for the committee not to be named as they carry out their inquiries, tell CNN that a State Department whistleblower has raised multiple issues over a period of months, about special agents being asked to carry out some questionable tasks for the Pompeo family.

“These are not the kind of people who go around complaining,” retired Rear Admiral John Kirby told CNN.


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Do not underestimate Army Corp of Engineers whistleblower Bunny Greenhouse. A stern, elegant woman who favors sprawling floral lapel pins, she could be mistaken for the schoolteacher she once was. And, don’t think that time and retirement have tempered Greenhouse. The woman who objected to no-bid contracts for Iraq War contractors still has something to say.

Tonight, Friday June 28, the CBS show “Whistleblowers” includes a segment on her story as part of the last episode of the season. The program also includes an interview with Michael D. Kohn, a board member of the National Whistleblower Center and one of Greenhouse’s lawyers.

Bunny Greenhouse

“I never considered myself as a whistleblower,” she tells host Alex Ferrer. “I was doing the work I had taken the oath of office to do. But I still became the skunk in the park.”

Bunnatine Greenhouse was in charge of procurement for the Army Corps of Engineers and she took her job seriously. In 2003, she objected to a secret, no-bid contract guaranteeing Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root, billions of dollars for services related to the invasion of Iraq. Unsatisfied with the response to questions she raised, she took her concerns to Congress in 2005. Thus began a long battle between Greenhouse and the Corps. She was demoted, her glowing job evaluations turned sour and she was sidelined.

Still, she tells Ferrer: “I learned to not let fear paralyze me.”
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