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VA workers union wants St. Pete ‘whistleblower’ rehired

The national president of the union representing employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs’ St. Petersburg Regional Office wants a worker who was fired after complaining about fraud, waste and abuse and mismanagement there to get his job back.

“We are particularly concerned with the termination of Mr. Javier Soto, who was advised that his services as a Ratings Benefits Services Representative ‘were no longer needed’ just days after issuing a report about fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement in the office,” J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, wrote in a letter to St. Petersburg Regional Office director Kerrie Witty on Feb. 12.

The union’s national and regional offices “will not tolerate a blatant retaliatory personnel action against any employee because of disclosure of information in accordance with the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989.”

Cox, whose union represents more than 100,000 VA workers across the country, said, “It is our firm stance in accordance with federal law that the action taken against Mr. Soto is not only illegal, but ethically wrong and in direct opposition to the five core values of integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect and excellence which underscore the obligations inherent in VA’s mission.”

Aside from asking Witty to rescind Soto’s termination, Cox wants her to “further investigate not only the matters evidenced in his report but other personnel actions that may have resulted in wrongdoing against our most valuable assets — those that service our nations’ veterans.”

Soto’s “wrongful termination at our VA was a violation of the law and public policy,” says his attorney, Natalie Khawam, president and founder of Tampa’s Whistleblower Law Firm.

Bruce Clisby, who serves as spokesman for the regional office, declined comment on the letter, citing pending litigation.

“Leadership at the St. Petersburg VA Regional Office encourages employees to bring to the attention of their managers and supervisors any wrong doing involving violation of any law, rule or regulation or if there is gross mismanagement, waste of funds, an abuse of authority, or a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety,” Clisby said in an email to The Tampa Tribune. “Intimidation or retaliation against any employee who raises a legitimate problem, comes forward with a suggestion, or reports what may be a violation of law, policy, or VA’s core values is not tolerated. “

VA Secretary Bob McDonald, who has repeatedly stated his demands that the VA will not tolerate an atmosphere of retaliation against whistleblowers, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Soto, who is still vice president of the local AFGE council, was terminated last June 30, days after issuing a scathing report pointing out what he said was a “poor, inept and inaccurate” quality control process for benefits claims at the St. Petersburg office, the nation’s busiest claims processing center.

Last year, Soto, who testified about his firing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee, filed a complaint over his termination with the Federal Labor Relations Authority. That complaint is still pending. He also filed a complaint with the federal Office of Special Counsel, which closed the case without action but said Soto could take his case up with the Merit Systems Protection Board.

Under the Whistleblower Protection Act, an individual who alleges that a personnel action was taken, or not taken, or threatened, because of “whistleblowing” may seek corrective action from the board directly if Special Counsel does not seek corrective action on his or her behalf, according to the board’s website. That complaint is pending, as well.

In his complaint, Soto said that the bottom line is how taxpayer funds are being spent.

The studies he conducted of how the office operates, “evidenced violations of law, rule or regulation, and gross mismanagement, or a gross waste of funds.”

Some veterans were not paid enough because their claims were not properly investigated, others were paid too much, and in some cases, personnel illegally altered claims decisions, according to the complaint. Inconsistent quality checks exacerbated the problem.

A Government Accountability Report released late last year showed similar problems throughout the Veterans Benefits Administration’s claim system.

The VBA “does not always follow generally accepted statistical practices, resulting in imprecise performance information,” according to the GAO. Aside from producing “imprecise estimates of national and regional accuracy,” the VBA “reviews about 39 percent (over 5,000) more claims nationwide than is necessary to achieve its desired precision in reported accuracy rates, thereby diverting limited resources from other important quality assurance activities, such as targeted reviews of error-prone cases.”

Soto has said his issue isn’t personal or a vendetta against management.

“I just want to make sure that veterans are being paid correctly and that federal funds are being used properly,” Soto said in a telephone interview last year. “That’s why most employees show up and what most employees care about. But management just cares about numbers to show they’ve made a big dent in the backlog, and I am worried that big dent is going to come back to haunt us.”

Soto stood up for what he believed in, said Khawam.

“It’s not always easy to do the right thing,” she said, “but whistleblowers like Javier have done the right thing to protect us.”

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