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VA drops probe of whistleblower after year of intimidation

By   /   July 14, 2015  /   No Comments

Part 13 of 18 in the series Veterans Affairs

By Tori Richards | Watchdog.org

Photo courtesy of Shea Wilkes

FREE AT LAST: VA social worker Shea Wilkes, shown with his daughter, blew the whistle on long wait times and has been cleared from investigation after a year of turmoil.

A social worker at a Louisiana Veterans Affairs hospital is no longer under criminal investigation by his employer for accessing a secret list that he used as proof to show that 2,700 vets languished – including 37 who died – awaiting care.

It’s been a year since Shea Wilkes, a decorated Army Reservist, went to the media with evidence that the Overton Brooks VA Medical Center in Shreveport kept an off-the-books appointment list. The nationwide scandal that followed cost the VA secretary his job – and nearly cost Wilkes his position. He was demoted and harassed, and saw any future advancement evaporate while the VA Inspector General treated him as a suspect rather than a whistleblower.

On June 24, Wilkes’ attorney received a phone call: The Inspector General agents had dropped their probe.

“What they would’ve been investigating him for was accessing a list that wasn’t supposed to exist,” attorney Richard John said. “They had no intention of ever prosecuting him. They did it solely for purpose of intimidation. It has a chilling effect on other people coming forward as witnesses.”

Wilkes is left with a mix of relief and anger. Even though he’s in the clear, the VA has not restored Wilkes to his management-level job in the mental health division — he’s still a front-line social worker. He has one small upgrade: he was moved from the closet where he was banished last summer to an actual office with a window — but in an area isolated from coworkers.

This is the same VA hospital that ran out of linens, toiletries and pajamas for days on end, a Watchdog investigation found.

“My ability to move up in the VA is pretty much shot for coming forward with the truth,” said Wilkes, who has worked at Overton Brooks for eight years and has masters degrees in social work and business administration. “I pretty much knew when I came forward as a whistleblower my dream of one day becoming a VA hospital director was over.

“But coming forward has never been about me. It has always been about getting the vets the world-class care they deserve in a timely manner,” Wilkes continued. “That’s why I continue to fight no matter what the VA or anybody says.”

Wilkes leads a national contingent of VA whistleblowers. He says several others are also under the Inspector General’s microscope. To his knowledge, he is the only one who has been cleared, perhaps, he speculates, because he has been the most vocal.

Last fall Wilkes complained to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel that he was being harassed by the Inspector General and asked for protection as a whistleblower. It was granted. In March, Watchdog reported that the tables had turned: the OSC was looking into the possibility that the Inspector General’s actions were designed to intimidate Wilkes.

Apparently the OSC knew that Wilkes would be cleared earlier in the year but waited three months to notify him. After receiving the phone call, he asked for a report in a Freedom of Information Act request. The OSC sent him a short document titled, “WILKES, CHRISTOPHER –  DATA BREACH – SHREVEPORT VAMC” dated March 24, 2015.

“There is no indication that Wilkes disseminated the information on the Excel spreadsheets to anyone. As a result, this matter will not be referred to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for a prosecutive decision, and it is considered closed,” the report said.

Troubled History

The VA’s troubles began in 2013 when an audit revealed excessive wait times in Atlanta. This was followed by a whistleblower in Phoenix, Wilkes in Shreveport, and others around the nation – each reporting hundreds of thousands of vets waiting years to see doctors, with many dying in the process. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in May 2014 and President Obama brought in a replacement who vowed to clean up the mess.

In the midst of the scandal, Wilkes tried vainly to get the attention of Inspector General agents before he went public. Suddenly he found himself under interrogation, his computer hard-drive was confiscated, and he was asked to undergo a lie detector test.

RELATED STORY: VA hospital lacks sheets, pj’s and toothbrushes but spends millions on new furniture, TVs and solar.

Wilkes and John have spoken frequently with OSC attorneys this year as they opened their own case. These same attorneys gave John the notification that Wilkes had been cleared.

John said he never believed Wilkes would be charged with a crime because there wasn’t any evidence that he violated federal patient privacy laws by copying Shreveport’s secret waiting list.

If the inspectors wanted to know what happened, they should’ve just done a civil investigation that would yield public reports under a Freedom of Information Act request, John said. But that would mean more publicity – something the VA hoped to avoid.

“The frustration and anger against this agency is still there, but it’s also a relief,” John said. “The federal government is a big hammer to be swinging at you.”

Part of 18 in the series Veterans Affairs

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Tori formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.