Federal employees who are whistleblowers can help fight fraud, waste, and abuse, so laws protect them from retaliation, such as demotion and firing.
We're looking into whistleblower retaliation cases at the Department of Veterans Affairs. This report covers our observations on cases reported to the federal Office of Special Counsel. From FY 2018-22:
- 69% of cases involving VA employees included claims of whistleblower retaliation
- The percentage of cases that closed in the whistleblower's favor increased
- Less than 1% of these cases were closed with a settlement agreement
What GAO Found
Most Office of Special Counsel (OSC) investigations of complaints from Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) employees included allegations of whistleblower retaliation. These cases took longer to close than VA cases overall and have increasingly closed with an outcome that benefits the complainant. Specifically, from fiscal years 2018 through 2022, 69 percent of cases involving VA employees included allegations of whistleblower retaliation, according to GAO's analysis of OSC's data. These cases took OSC a median of 94 days to close, compared to 83 days across all cases. Additionally, whistleblower retaliation cases that closed with a favorable action—an outcome that benefitted the complainant—took longer (a median of 391 days) when compared to OSC's cases overall. From fiscal year 2018 through fiscal year 2022, the percentage of cases with a favorable action increased from 3 percent to 10 percent. OSC closed most (59 percent) allegations of whistleblower retaliation from VA employees because it found insufficient evidence for further action.
VA and a complainant (i.e., whistleblower) can settle claims of whistleblower retaliation in the office where a dispute arises at any point in the complaint process. VA has general guidance available regarding the clearance authority required for all settlement agreements, including whistleblower retaliation. Additionally, VA attorneys provide legal representation to the agency and advice to the settlement official, who is responsible for negotiating and approving the terms of a settlement agreement. The complainant can hire a legal or non-legal representative, or can represent themselves. VA's Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP) does not have a role in negotiating settlement agreements; however, as of 2022, OAWP implemented a system to track agreements that resolve claims of whistleblower retaliation in response to Congressional inquiries.
Why GAO Did This Study
Whistleblowers help protect the public interest by reporting allegations of wrongdoing, such as a violation of law or gross mismanagement. While whistleblowers potentially safeguard the government from fraud, waste, and abuse, they may risk reprisal from their agencies for disclosures, such as demotion, reassignment or termination.
VA is one of the largest federal agencies and employs around 400,000 people across hundreds of medical facilities, clinics, and benefits offices. Whistleblowers at the VA can file complaints of retaliation internally, through the agency’s OAWP, or externally with other agencies, such as OSC. In some cases, whistleblowers will enter into a settlement agreement with VA to resolve the dispute.
GAO was asked to provide information on VA whistleblower retaliation investigations and settlement agreements. This report describes (1) the process, length, and outcomes of OSC investigations of whistleblower retaliation allegations from VA employees, and (2) how VA resolves allegations of whistleblower retaliation through settlement agreements. This is an interim product. GAO has ongoing work that will expand on the topics covered in this report, including on OAWP investigations.
To analyze the process, length, and outcomes of OSC investigations of VA whistleblower retaliation, GAO reviewed OSC documents, interviewed agency officials, and analyzed OSC case management system data from fiscal years 2018 through 2022. To understand the policies and practices for developing whistleblower retaliation settlement agreements and tracking information on them, GAO reviewed VA documents and interviewed agency officials.
For more information, contact Thomas Costa at (202) 512-4769 or firstname.lastname@example.org.