VA whistleblower-protection worker Brandon Coleman seeks protection
WASHINGTON – All Brandon Coleman wanted was a meeting.
The onetime addiction counselor and Veterans Affairs whistleblower known for exposing poor care of suicidal veterans at the Phoenix VA hospital has been doing outreach to other VA whistleblowers since 2017 on behalf of President Donald Trump’s whistleblower-protection office.
This year, the office got a new leader, VA Assistant Secretary Tamara Bonzanto, so Coleman asked her for a few minutes to brief her on his efforts, including a new mentorship program for other whistleblowers.
“‘Absolutely, Brandon, we can work that in,'” Coleman recalled her telling him during an encounter in March. But the next day, he said a supervisor told him his program was being “put on hold” and he hasn’t heard from Bonzanto since.
Coleman told USA TODAY he has learned from colleagues in recent weeks that he has been excluded from meetings, his program is being eliminated, and he and dozens of other employees at the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection are being asked to submit resumes and worry they could face possible demotion or worse.
Coleman – one of the highest-profile employees of the whistleblower office – has now requested protection from another federal agency that protects whistleblowers, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. In his request, which he also sent to members of Congress, Coleman described the work environment as “toxic” and said the office has turned into a “Dumpster fire,” according to a copy of his complaint sent July 31.
In interviews and written complaints reviewed by USA TODAY, three other employees who requested anonymity described Bonzanto as a leader who has cut herself off from employees and issued blanket orders without listening to front-line staff.
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“We need help,” Coleman said. “How can you treat your employees the exact way we’re trying to protect employees from being treated?”
In response to inquiries from USA TODAY, the VA said Coleman’s use of the terms “toxic” and “Dumpster fire” shows a “critical disregard” for the fact that problems at the office have been “over two years in the making” and include a “substantial backlog of cases.”
The agency said in a statement that Bonzanto is reorganizing the office to enhance communications with VA employees who report wrongdoing across the country and speed up investigations of the complaints.
The VA said leaders who conducted meetings to inform staff about the “proposed realignment” reassured them they “will not lose their job or have their pay reduced.”
“OAWP has remained transparent with staff throughout the realignment process; solicited and received feedback; and responded to staff questions during multiple meetings and discussions,” the VA said.
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The complaints from Coleman and his colleagues are the first to become public from inside the office. VA whistleblowers and advocates outside the agency have complained its operations have been ineffective and even vindictive.
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Trump signed an executive order and later a law in 2017 creating the office to look into claims made by whistleblowers, protect them from retaliation and hold their managers accountable. Coleman stood behind Trump during the signing of the executive order.
Whistleblowing employees who have gone public to expose failures at the VA in recent years have played a critical role in driving a push for improvements at the agency. Health care workers revealed in 2014 that employees were keeping secret wait lists for appointments at the Phoenix VA and veterans had died while waiting.
Since then, they have come forward about the over-prescription of opioids to veterans in Wisconsin, equipment shortages in Washington, and dangerous conditions jeopardizing veteran care in Memphis, among other revelations.
In response to inquiries about Coleman’s recent complaints, the VA said Bonzanto didn’t hear from him after he asked for the meeting in March, and his customer service duties “will continue even after the office is realigned.”
After USA TODAY reached out to the VA for comment about Coleman’s request for a meeting with Bonzanto, a senior official told his lawyer he could schedule an appointment.
“If employees have concerns, we encourage them to discuss them with OAWP leadership or provide specific examples so that we can address their concerns directly,” the agency said in a statement. “Unfortunately that didn’t happen in this case.”
The whistleblower office has been under investigation by the VA inspector general for months and a report is expected in September. A Government Accountability Office report last year raised concerns about the independence of the office’s investigations of wrongdoing reported by whistleblowers.
The VA said Bonzanto’s reorganization is a key improvement she’s making to help address those concerns.
“The inspector general and congressional stakeholders have expressed the need for improvements at OAWP, and that’s precisely what VA Assistant Secretary for Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Dr. Tamara Bonzanto has been focusing on,” the agency said.
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Improving the VA has been a personal crusade for Coleman, a former Marine with six children, including three Marines. For years, he has backed giving veterans more options for outside care paid for by the VA – a proposal Trump ultimately signed into law.
After Coleman reported in 2014 that suicidal veterans were neglected and left to walk out of the Phoenix VA, his bosses at the time accused him of misconduct and shut down his addiction-treatment program. It took nearly two years to settle the case and get Coleman’s program reinstated. He went on to testify before Congress about his experiences.
Coleman was hired to do outreach for the whistleblower office and provide insights to managers on policies and programs.
The office quickly began taking in reports from VA employees – more than 1,000 in the first six months, including more than 200 alleging retaliation by VA bosses for speaking out about problems and dozens about potential threats to veteran health and safety. The office staffed up with more than 50 employees to triage and investigate the reports.
Coleman created the mentorship program, which paired a whistleblower with a senior leader to create and implement an improvement project at their VA hospital. The first pairing Coleman oversaw was in Shreveport, Louisiana, where social worker Shea Wilkes faced retaliation in 2014 after he revealed schedulers had been manipulating appointment wait times.
He partnered with Shreveport VA Director Richard Crockett last year to work on a hotline for employees to anonymously report problems. The VA hailed Coleman’s success in Shreveport last October and said it would “serve as a model nationwide.”
But complaints about the office’s investigative division had been mounting, including allegations in the GAO report last July that the office allowed officials accused of wrongdoing to participate in investigations of the accusations.
Bonzanto, who was previously an investigator with the House Veterans Affairs Committee, was brought in as a change agent in January.
Meanwhile, Coleman continued to vet new whistleblower applicants for his mentorship program – they had to submit resumes and do interviews to be considered. He said he had eight lined up when he approached Bonzanto to ask for the meeting in March.
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After the program was put on hold, Coleman has continued to triage incoming calls from whistleblowers. When he was excluded from the reorganization meetings last month, he said he started receiving calls from colleagues reluctant to report problems because of fear of retaliation from their bosses.
That’s when, Coleman said, “It hit me.”
“I no longer feel confident referring whistleblowers to come to OAWP for help,” he said. “Something’s wrong with the office, and that’s why it was time to come forward. This needs to be fixed.”