Martha Roby: Strengthening protections for brave whistleblowers

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Martha Roby OfficialThe House recently passed S. 585, the Dr. Chris Kirkpatrick Whistleblower Protection Act, and sent it to the President’s desk for his signature. This legislation will strengthen penalties for those who retaliate against federal employee whistleblowers, add protections and opportunities for whistleblowers placed on probation, and ensure that all federal employees have a greater knowledge of whistleblower rights and protections.

I strongly supported this bill and took the opportunity to speak on the House floor urging my colleagues to pass it. I shared my experience working with whistleblowers inside the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care System (CAVHCS) to demonstrate why we need better protections for those who shine a light on wrongdoing and stronger penalties for those would retaliate against them.

This month marks 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. As you know, this was a major step toward turning around one of the nation’s worst VA systems and restoring trust with the veterans it is supposed to serve. Progress has been made, but we still have a lot of work to do to improve service at CAVHCS. However, none of the progress that we have made would have been possible without the brave whistleblowers inside the VA who told me the truth about what was going on inside those walls.

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 shared their story with The Montgomery Advertiser at great personal risk to their careers.

The stories are well known: the missing X-Rays, the manipulated pulmonology records, the crack house incident – the list goes on. The instances of mismanagement, negligence, and even criminal activity were shocking, and their exposure led to a major shakeup inside the VA. Four CAVHCS senior managers were removed and the entire chain of command from Montgomery to Atlanta to Washington, D.C. was replaced. Without the brave whistleblowers, we would have probably never known, and I doubt anything would have changed.

To me and to the veterans who’s lives they probably saved, these whistleblowers are heroes, but that’s not how they were treated by VA officials. They were treated as enemies and outcasts and faced severe retaliation because they did the right thing.

Rich Tremaine actually testified before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs and detailed the systemic way some VA officials attempted to silence and marginalize him. The effects of his blowing the whistle on wrongdoing follow him to this very day even though he is far away from Montgomery, Alabama.

You see, my experience working to clean house at our Central Alabama VA taught me a 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 and even harm veterans, but then it 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. All too frequently VA employees who are caught doing the wrong thing are “reprimanded,” shuffled around to different jobs, or allowed to quietly retire, while those who try to do right by veterans by shining a light on misconduct are persecuted, intimidated, or worse.

There’s a reason federal employees face retaliation for speaking up. It’s not because people are naturally mean or because there’s some type of misunderstanding. The reason whistleblowers face systemic retaliation is because it works. When a brave whistleblower faces intimidation and persecution for their actions the other employees see it and they know what will happen to them if they come forward and tell the truth. This practice has a powerful effect, and we saw it firsthand in Montgomery. That is so wrong, and its time to put a stop to it by punishing 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 am confident that the legislation we recently passed is another step in the right direction, and I will continue to fight for needed improvements to the VA that our nation’s veterans deserve.

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Martha Roby represents Alabama’s Second Congressional District. She lives in Montgomery, Alabama with her husband Riley and their two children.

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