Six months after Barack Obama toured the notorious Phoenix VA hospital declaring that “some progress” has been made, a congresswoman wants to know why a whistleblower remains suspended from his job for revealing that suicidal veterans were turned away from the facility.
Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Phoenix, wrote letters to the Veterans Affairs secretary and the president’s Office of Special Counsel on Monday calling for the firing of anyone who retaliated against the whistleblower, which is a crime.
Counselor and retired Marine Brandon Coleman was suspended in January after hospital director Glen Grippen called a supervisory meeting and said he “wanted to discuss what he could do about Coleman’s actions and asked if it were possible to remove Coleman from employment,” according to a sworn affidavit by Laurie Butler, the hospital’s human resources manager.
“At the least, Grippen wanted to know if he could put Coleman on Administrative Absence,” Butler wrote. When another manager stated that Coleman couldn’t be suspended because of whistleblower protection but could be removed for unrelated activity, someone piped up with a dispute Coleman had with another employee.
“I thought this sounded like a ‘he said – he said’ situation that would need further investigation,” Butler declared. She said she had to take time off work and when she returned, Coleman had been suspended.
Grippen could not be reached for comment.
By the time Coleman first spoke up in January, the Phoenix Veterans Affairs Health Care System was already at the center of a firestorm. Last summer, a scheduling clerk told the media that VA staff kept a secret waiting list existed where dozens of patients died awaiting care.
Immediately after that, VA social worker Shea Wilkes in Shreveport claimed that a similar list existed there with 37 dead patients.
Wilkes was criminally investigated by the VA’s Inspector General, but cleared of wrongdoing after the Office of Special Counsel intervened. He was never suspended but was demoted.
Then on Jan. 12 Coleman told a TV reporter that suicidal veterans were discharged from the Phoenix VA emergency room when the protocol is to admit them for observation. The reason was because the hospital wasn’t fully staffed with social workers to help the patients. On some occasions only a single volunteer without any counseling experience was on duty. Coleman feared the veterans were leaving and committing suicide.
On March 13, Obama visited the Phoenix VA with Secretary Bob McDonald, who was hired last year to clean up the mess.
The president Obama told media at the Phoenix hospital that McDonald was on board to chip away at the problems.
“The kind of cooking the books and unwillingness to face up to the fact that veterans were not being adequately served went on too long, and as a consequence, we didn’t fix what needed to be fixed,” Obama said.
McDonald vowed to build trust in in the beleaguered agency, and even met with Coleman during the visit. Coleman said McDonald told him Grippen was making a good faith effort to ‘fix this and reinstate you.’
During the past several months Grippen cleared Coleman of any wrongdoing that served as grounds for caused his suspension and lifted a mandate that he needed a police escort while in the building. Grippen has also offered Coleman various jobs that he turned down because they were lesser positions or in places where Coleman faced a hostile environment because of his whistleblower status.
The last time Coleman heard from McDonald was April 2 when, he says, the secretary emailed to reiterate that Grippen was “making a good faith effort to get this behind us all.”
A mediation team comprising of Coleman, the VA and the Special Counsel has been meeting to find a position acceptable to all parties. This week, Coleman’s paid leave expires, and he’ll be without a paycheck.
Grippen “continues to try and force me back into the same retaliatory environment I was illegally removed from — without admitting to or fixing any of the issues,” Coleman said.
“I believe Glen Grippen represents the worst in what the VA’s core values are,” Coleman said. “In a time that calls for openness and honesty and a true good faith effort in helping to restore the trust from the veterans we serve, Mr. Grippen has instead practiced deception, and secrecy in working much harder to remove an employee who is telling the truth, than to actually try and fix the problems in caring for our nation’s heroes.”
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