2018 Whistleblower Summit: Health and Safety Whistleblowing

This is the second in a five-part series.

Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) whistleblowers spoke directly about their experiences committing the truth in order to defend veterans. Brandon Coleman, who exposed breakdowns with VA suicide prevention efforts, spoke about his new role helping to run a mentoring program within the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. The number one complaint he hears is that employees have difficulty finding work after they blow the whistle. He tries to help them by discussing his own whistleblowing, the OSC process, how to speak with the media, and the importance of self-care.

Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez, former chief of specialty care clinics in Phoenix and an Iraq veteran, reported VA delays in providing mental health care and a list of 116 veterans who died before receiving care. As Rodriguez explained, “Veterans receiving care is an issue that transcends politics – they deserve the health care that they earned.” Rodriguez described his retaliation to coming forward, including government surveillance, death threats, and denial of paid leave for a cardiac injury.

Daniel Martin, Chief Engineer for the VA Northern Indiana Health Care System, explained that for more than 500 days he has been stripped of his job duties and relocated to a room contaminated with silica and asbestos after he internally reported gross misuse of taxpayer dollars. On June 27, OSHA issued a Notice of Unsafe or Unhealthful Working Conditions at the facility due to the presence of silica, lead and asbestos. The VA has until August 18 to correct the violation.  Despite the threats to his health, Martin explained that he remains at the VA because he wants to continue to support veterans.

James DeNofrio worked as an administrative officer at the Altoona, Pennsylvania VA Medical Center, and he put his career on the line when he reported concerns about the quality of care that patients were receiving under the hands of an aging physician who was making life-threatening mistakes. In the wake of his whistleblowing, he reported that he was denied promotions and overtime, threatened with lower performance ratings, and his medical records were shared with unauthorized recipients. Echoing Senator Grassley’s remarks, DeNofrio and the other courageous civil servants should be honored with a rose garden – not punished for exposing harm to our veterans.

Day two of the Summit kicked off with a panel regarding USDA whistleblowers in the #MeToo movement. Members and supporters of the USDA Coalition of Minority Employees described the experiences of women in the U.S. Forest Service and other USDA divisions that have been sexually assaulted within the workplace. They identified the need for exposure, accountability and coalition building to end sexual harassment. Rep. Jackie Speier’s (D-CA) office discussed the role of congressional hearings and agency audits in shedding light on these abuses. Notably, Rep. Speier has advocated for congressional staff who expose sexual harassment to have whistleblower protections to challenge retaliation.

During a panel entitled Blowing the Whistle on the Blue Wall of Silence, Matthew Fogg spoke about his experience exposing systemic racism within the U.S. Marshal Service. According to Fogg, the “blue wall of silence” means “you keep your mouth shut” when you witness wrongdoing within a law enforcement workplace. When he considered coming forward, his peers urged him, “Whatever you do, don’t take on the system.” The experience brought him to tears, and “changed my whole life, change my career.” But as he explained it, “the only way you deal with a bad cop is through a good cop.” Fogg embodies the role of the “good cop”, and he is starting a national whistleblower network for law enforcement officers.