Roby: Brave Whistleblowers Need Stronger Protections

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Representative Martha Roby (R-Ala.) today spoke in support of legislation that would secure greater protections for federal whistleblowers and increase penalties against those who retaliate against them.

S. 585, the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act, strengthens penalties for those who retaliate against federal employee whistleblowers, adds protections and opportunities for whistleblowers placed on probation, and ensures all federal employees have a greater knowledge of whistleblower rights and protections.

Roby spoke on the House floor and referenced her own experience working with whistleblowers to expose wrongdoing at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVHCS) to demonstrate how retaliation works.

“Mr. Speaker, my experience working to clean house at our Central Alabama VA taught me a fascinating and frustrating truth about the culture in some parts of the VA,” Roby said. “The system routinely goes out of its way to protect those who don’t do their jobs or even harm veterans, but then goes after those who try to stop that misbehavior.”

Roby specifically mentioned Central Alabama whistleblowers Sheila Meuse and Rich Tremaine, who faced severe retaliation from VA officials because they told the truth about mismanagement, negligence, and even criminal behavior inside CAVHCS.

“Had it not been for the courage of those on the inside to expose this wrongdoing, the world might never have known. To me and to the veterans whose lives they might have saved, they are heroes. But, that’s not how they were treated by VA officials. They were treated as enemies and outcasts – all because they tried to do the right thing. That is just wrong and its time to punish those who do it with harsher penalties.”

S. 585 was passed by the Senate unanimously, and the House is scheduled to vote on the bill this week.

The full text of Rep. Roby’s remarks as prepared is below.

Mr. Speaker, I rise to urge my colleagues support this rule and the underlying bill, S. 585, the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act of 2017.

This bill strengthens penalties against those who retaliate against whistleblowers, adds protections and opportunities for whistleblowers placed on probation, and ensures federal employees have a greater knowledge of whistleblower rights and protections.

Specifically, this bill forbids a supervisor from taking or threatening to take action against an employee because they refuse to obey an order that would violate a law, rule, or regulation.

I want to thank Senator Ron Johnson for his persistence in pushing this legislation even after former Senator Harry Reid shut it down last Congress.

What a poignant and meaningful gesture to name this bill after Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick, a VA employee who took his own life after being subjected to cruel retaliation from VA officials. I hope it puts in perspective the immense emotional burden that victims of retaliation face.

Mr. Speaker, this issue is personal for me. Unfortunately, I’ve seen exactly what retaliation against whistleblowers looks like, how easy it is to get away with it, and why we have to put a stop to it.

Last week marked three years since the Director of the Central Alabama VA became the first senior manager in the country fired as a result of the waitlist scandal. That was a major step toward turning around one of the nation’s worst VA systems and restoring trust with the veteran population it serves.

But, Mr. Speaker, I can say beyond a shadow of a doubt that it never would have happened without brave whistleblowers inside the VA telling me the truth.

Two brave individuals in particular – Sheila Meuse and Rich Tremaine – told me the truth about major instances of misconduct and mismanagement when nobody else would. Seeing no other way to achieve change, they finally told their story to the media at great personal risk to their careers.

The stories that emerged from these exposures are almost unbelievable:

More than 1000 X-Ray cancer screenings were lost and unread for years, even though some showed malignancies. When alerted to the problem, top administrators tried to cover it up.

A pulmonologist manipulated more than 1,200 patient records, but even after being caught twice, was still given a satisfactory review.

A Central Alabama VA employee took a recovering veteran to a crack house and bought him drugs and prostitutes in order to extort his VA payments. And even when caught, this employee was not fired until a year and a half later when we exposed it in the newspaper.

Mr. Speaker, this behavior is egregious. And – trust me – there’s a lot more where that came from.

However, had it not been for the courage of those on the inside to expose this wrongdoing, the world might never have known. To me, and to the veterans whose lives they might have saved, they are heroes. But that’s not how they were treated by VA officials. They were treated as enemies and outcasts – all because they tried to do the right thing.

Rich Tremaine actually testified here before the Veterans Affairs Committee, detailing the systematic way some VA officials attempted to silence and marginalize him. The effects of his blowing the whistle on wrongdoing follow him to this day, far away from Montgomery, Alabama.

Mr. Speaker, my experience working to clean house at our Central Alabama VA taught me a fascinating and frustrating truth about the culture in some parts of the VA. The system routinely goes out of its way to protect those who don’t do their jobs or even harm veterans, but then goes after those who try to stop that misbehavior.

For years, because of poorly-written civil service laws and powerful unions, too many VA employees got the message that misconduct, negligence, and poor performance would be tolerated – but blowing the whistle on that kind of behavior would not be.

I’ve seen it too many times. All too frequently VA employees caught for doing the wrong thing are “reprimanded,” shuffled around to different jobs, or allowed to quietly retire. But those who try to do right by veterans by shining a light on misconduct are persecuted, intimidated, or worse.

While I’m proud of the work we have done the last three years to put an end to this unacceptable culture at the VA, there is much more work to be done. 

Mr. Speaker, there’s a reason why federal employees face retaliation for speaking up. It’s not because people are just naturally mean or because there’s some kind of misunderstanding. The reason whistleblowers face systematic retaliation is because it works.

When a brave whistleblower faces intimidation and persecution for their actions, every other employee sees it. And they know what will happen to them if they tell the truth. It has a powerful chilling effect – one we saw first-hand in Montgomery.

They retaliate because it works. That is just wrong and its time to punish those who do it with harsher penalties.

We need to rethink our civil service laws in this country to make sure public servants live up to the honor and responsibility of the public trust. I believe this bill is another positive step in that direction, and that’s why I urge my colleagues to bring it to the floor by supporting this rule.

Thank you. I yield back.

 

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About Duncan Lindsey

Husband, father, IT professional, videographer, podcaster and blogger in Troy, Alabama.
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