A well-respected, non-partisan watchdog group, currently probing the allegations of misconduct and malfeasance at healthcare facilities run by the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, is refusing to comply with a federal subpoena on Friday ordering the group to reveal the identities of — and information provided by — whistleblowers.
The subpoena demands that the Inside-the-Beltway Project on Government Oversight (POGO) turn over any and all documents and identities POGO received from federal official, rank-and-file employees, and others who had complained to POGO about distressing activities occurring at VA medical facilities. The whistleblowers were assured that their complaints would be kept secret and they would remain anonymous.
According to POGO, the material they received regarding the VA had been digitally encrypted in order to protect confidentiality.
Officials from POGO, a nonprofit group that earned awards this month from the Society of Professional Journalists for investigative and business reporting, refused to comply with the order by the VA’s inspector general to turn over the files, POGO spokesman Joe Newman said.
According to an Examiner news story: “One of the major complaints leveled at Veterans Administration (VA) officials has been their retaliation against military hospital staff who identify problems within their facilities. But according to the VA’s acting chief, those involved in intimidation or retaliation against whistleblowers will face serious disciplinary action.”
The inspector general’s legal council, Maureen Regan, had threatened POGO with government action if the group failed to comply with the subpoena. The government’s action against POGO may include seeking court action against POGO, negotiating for the records. or dropping the matter entirely.
POGO, a group that investigates and exposes government misconduct and is a staunch advocate for whistleblowers and their protections, had set up a secure website, vaoversight.org, to solicit complaints from insiders about fraud, waste or abuse inside the Veterans Affairs Department. It included instructions to “maximize your security and anonymity” and promised whistleblowers it would “protect your identity while trying to expose and remedy the problems you have identified,”according to an ABC news story on Friday.
“Unless you have already been publicly labeled as a whistleblower, we usually do not recommend making your identity public and exposing yourself to the many risks associated with doing so,” the web site warned.
The VA’s acting inspector general, Richard J. Griffin, is investigating whether or not the agency provided timely care to veterans at its medical center in Phoenix. In an administrative subpoena Griffin issued May 30, he ordered POGO to turn over records of any complaints it received from current or former employees or others about the Phoenix facility and all other VA medical centers. Administrative subpoenas are not approved by a judge.
The Obama administration earlier this year unilaterally promulgated new rules limiting the Justice Department from issuing subpoenas for obtaining records from news media organizations in leaks investigations. Those new rules followed revelations that the justice department had secretly subpoenaed telephone records for reporters and editors at the Associated Press wire service.
“Under no circumstances does POGO plan to release any information that would compromise whistleblowers. It has not happened in our 33-year history. It’s not going to happen now” said POGO’s executive director, Danielle Brian.