ST. PETERSBURG — More than two dozen members of a union representing workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs St. Petersburg Regional Office carried signs and shouted slogans Friday afternoon as part of an effort to get the office to rehire an employee fired last year after complaining about mismanagement, waste and fraud.
The protest, held on Bay Pines Boulevard outside the sprawling VA campus by members of the American Federation of Government Employees, was staged to pressure the office to rehire Javier Soto, a former ratings benefits services representative who was fired last summer just days after issuing a scathing report pointing out what he said was a “poor, inept and inaccurate” quality control process for benefit claims at the office. He had been at the office for four years.
Soto, who is still vice president of AFGE Local 1594, which has about 320 members, testified last year before Congress about his situation.
“We are here protecting the rights of whistleblowers,” said Natalie Khawam, whose Tampa-based Whistleblower Law Firm is representing Soto in his efforts to get his old job back. “Whistleblowers like Javier help shape history when they expose the truth and protect us all from wrongdoing.”
Soto said he just wants to get his job back, adding that he was “honored” to see the support as protestors carried signs and shouted slogans on his behalf, urging management to refrain from retaliation against those who come forward.
Regional office officials deny they retaliated against Soto and say that only a small fraction of the office’s more than 900 employees took part in the protest.
Management shares the union’s “commitment to protecting employees from retaliation who engage in protected whistleblowing activity,” said office spokesman Bruce Clisby, in an emailed statement after the protest. Management officials declined a request to talk about the protest.
“Kerrie Witty, director of the St. Petersburg Regional Office, affirms to employees her commitment to protect whistleblower disclosures and prevent whistleblower retaliation,” Clisby said. “Employees have been told that the St. Petersburg Regional Office will not tolerate conduct that retaliates against any employee who engages in protected whistleblowing activity.”
Clisby said employees are provided links, allowing employees to file whistleblower complains, to the website of the United States Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that investigates and prosecutes allegations of whistleblower retaliation.
“During Director Witty’s tenure, the St. Petersburg Regional Office is only aware of one complaint received by OSC alleging retaliation as a result of whistleblowing activity, which was closed,” said Clisby. “A subsequent review of the matter found no evidence to support the allegation.”
Soto called that response “deceptive.”
Clisby declined to comment on which employee filed the complaint, but Soto said it was him.
The Office of Special Counsel “did not say there was no retaliation,” said Soto. “They said based on evidence available and the agency denied me evidence.” That, said Soto, is why OSC gave him permission to go to the federal Merit Services Protection Board to pursue a whistleblower claim.
OSC spokesman Nick Schwellenbach declined comment.
In November, Soto filed a whistleblower complaint with the board, claiming he was fired in retaliation for pointing out problems at the office, the nation’s busiest claims processing center.
He said he was fired without notice or due process and without any investigation into the concerns he raised in his report and several others like it. The complaint also said that management made the decision without consulting with Soto’s direct supervisors, or taking into account that he had no prior performance or disciplinary issues and was cited in his reviews for “following orders and working well with everybody.”
Soto had also 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 out without action, but said Soto could take his case up with the Merit Systems Protection Board. Under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, 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 the Special Counsel does not seek corrective action on his or her behalf, according to the board’s website.
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.
Clisby declined comment on Soto’s claims.
A Government Accountability Report released in November 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.”
The VA national office said “it takes whistleblower complaints seriously and will not tolerate retaliation against those who raise issues which may enable VA to better serve veterans,” said spokeswoman Jan Northstar. “We depend on VA employees and leaders to put the needs of Veterans first and honor VA’s core values of “‘Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect and Excellence.’”
J. David Cox, the union’s national president, was one of those who came out on Soto’s behalf and said that Soto is not the only employee around the country to be targeted for retaliation by the VA. And he promised to continue protesting until Soto gets his job back.
“We can’t have retaliation for informing the public about the problems at the VA,” said Cox. “We will not quit until he is reinstated.”