WASHINGTON, D.C. — The chairman of the Senate governmental affairs panel blasted the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Inspector General (OIG), charged with protecting and encouraging federal employees to come forward with allegations of personnel wrongdoing, for allegedly retaliating against a whistleblower after he died.
During a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGA) hearing today, Ron Johnson (R-WI), the panel’s chairman, grilled Linda Halliday, the VA deputy inspector general (IG), accusing her office of engaging in retaliation, intimidation, and reprisals against the very same whistleblowers they are entrusted with protecting.
“Mrs. Halliday, you heard [a whistleblower] say in testimony [today] that the VA Office of Inspector General is a joke, in your testimony you said whistleblowers are a vital part, that the office of the inspector general values whistleblowers, [and] reprisals are unacceptable,” Chairman Johnson told the VA deputy IG during the hearing, titled, “Improving VA Accountability: Examining First-Hand Accounts of Department of Veterans Affairs Whistleblowers.”
“I care deeply about the intimidation, the retaliation, the reprisal coming from the office of inspector general. So, listen, I appreciate the testimony, I appreciate the assurances that whistleblowers are a vital part, that the OIG values whistleblowers, that reprisals are unacceptable, but that’s not the record,” Johnson later told Halliday, raising his voice.
Johnson questioned Halliday about a document that surfaced during an investigation conducted by his committee. He referred to the document as the “white paper.”
The “white paper,” which has been mentioned in media reports, is linked to an incident that occurred at the Tomah Wisconsin VA Medical Center involving the suicide of Dr. Christopher Kirkpatrick, a psychologist and whistleblower.
Family members have told lawmakers and the media that Dr. Kirkpatrick’s suicide was linked to him raising questions about his patients being overmedicated with large amounts of narcotics.
Dr. Kirkpatrick took his own life on the same day he was fired from the VA facility — July 14, 2009.
His brother, Sean Kirkpatrick, testified during the hearing today that his family believes the doctor was pink-slipped for expressing concerns “about the large amounts of narcotics ordered and given to the patients in the PTSD and Substance Abuse Programs.”
Richard Griffin, the former VA deputy IG and Halliday’s predecessor, led the release of the 11-page document that Chairman Johnson referred to as the “white paper,” reported Military Times.
In the document, Griffin accuses Dr. Kirkpatrick of “distributing marijuana and other illegal substances,” something that Chairman Johnson believes is retaliatory action against the whistleblower for speaking out against alleged wrongdoing at the Tomah VA medical hospital.
“This came from the office of inspector general that says whistleblowers are a vital part, that OIG values whistleblowers, [and] reprisals are unacceptable. That sounds like a reprisal to me to a dead person,” said Sen. Johnson.
The senator then noted that the document also accused Tomah VA Medical Center whistleblower Noelle Johnson, a pharmacist, of having poor “interpersonal skills” and being “caustic to physicians.”
“Again this is the white paper from the office of the inspector general,” said Johnson, raising his voice.
Raising his voice, Sen. Johnson asked VA deputy IG Halliday, “What will the VA do to make do on this? To make up for this reprisal, for this reprehensible reprisal? What action are you willing to take?”
“As I stated, I did not prepare that document,” she responded.
Sen. Johnson then shouted, “Do you know the individuals in the office of inspector general that wrote this? Who did this? I want to know? This committee wants to know who was involved in this? I want to know every individual that was involved in writing this report?”
“I have to take that for the record,” responded Halliday. Chairman Johnson agreed.
“Let me apologize for showing such passion, but let me tell you what my gut reaction was… I was upset coming in here and you can tell I’ve become more upset,” noted Johnson. “I think every member of this committee has become more upset as we hear this.”
Carolyn Lerner, special counsel for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), who testified alongside Halliday, suggested that disciplinary action should be taken against the person responsible for writing the “white paper” document.
The OSC is an independent agency charged with overseeing whistleblower disclosures and investigating whistleblower retaliation across the Federal government.