Phoenix VA’s original whistleblower breaks her silence while waiting for Justice

Paula Pedene is a patient woman. A disabled veteran and former head of public relations at the scandal-ridden Phoenix Veteran Affairs Health Care System, Pedene has waited eight months to learn the punishment for the manager who retaliated against her for blowing the whistle on corrupt leaders at the beleaguered hospital.

She’s kept quiet. She hasn’t spoken to anyone in the press. She’s only contacted the investigators once every month to see if there is any news. But there is still no news. And her patience has run out.

“Whistleblowers at VA are thankfully still coming forward, but they’re still very afraid,” Pedene said in an interview with Yahoo News, her first remarks to the press since she learned in April of the investigation’s findings.

Last week, the Washington Post revealed that a Veterans Affairs internal probe completed 15 months ago, but never released to the public, found that senior managers at Phoenix VA retaliated against whistleblowers. The Office of Accountability Review (OAR) investigation recommended to VA Secretary Robert McDonald that these managers be disciplined or fired. But McDonald reportedly did nothing.

The investigation said Lance Robinson, deputy director at Phoenix VA, retaliated against Pedene, and Darren Deering, the regional outpost’s chief of staff, retaliated against Katherine Mitchell, a physician at Phoenix VA who made several charges against officials and told the Senate Committee on Appropriations’ subcommittee on veterans affairs that the agency “still cares more about their public image than about patient care.”

Katherine Mitchell of the Phoenix VA Health Care System is sworn in to testify before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in July 2014. (Photo: Cliff Owen/AP)

Pedene, who joined the Navy in 1978, re-enlisted to serve during the Gulf War and is legally blind, says she wasn’t told until April of this year that the investigations had concluded last October and recommended at that time that both managers be disciplined or fired.

In the Yahoo News interview, Pedene says that despite all the talk from new leadership at VA in Washington, the agency is still sending a mixed message about whistleblowers.

“Leadership at VA is emboldened now because nothing has happened to the managers in Phoenix who retaliated against me, and against Kate [Mitchell], and against others who were just telling the truth about what was going on,” says Pedene, whose charges against Phoenix VA leadership date back to 2010, when she quietly collaborated with Dr. Sam Foote, a VA physician for 24 years who is now retired.

Together they exposed a hostile work environment and misappropriation of funds by the hospital’s former leaders that eventually led to the revelations about veterans in Phoenix dying while waiting for care. In 2011, Pedene and Foote’s joint complaints were verified by the VA Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) report. A year later, when new leaders arrived in Phoenix, they removed Pedene from her high-profile job for an alleged computer violation and banished her for two years to a library clerk’s job well below her pay grade in the hospital’s basement.

Pedene says Phoenix VA management tried its best to ruin her life.

“They took me out of my job, they took away my email, they took away my office, my phone, they removed me illegally and unethically, and they took away my freedom of speech and said I could not speak to anyone about what was happening,” she says. “And of course, out of fear of job loss, I upheld their request. I didn’t want to then be caught with insubordination.”

Pedene says she struggled emotionally. “I have a lot more empathy now for people who have severe depression,” she says. “I was living in a gray fog; it was hard to think, hard to get up and get out of bed.”

When Secretary McDonald took over at VA for ousted Secretary Eric Shinseki, Pedene says the new secretary vowed that unethical VA staff would finally be held accountable and that he would get to the bottom of VA’s culture of retaliation against whistleblowers with the newly created Office of Accountability Review (OAR).

“We were one of the first ones they looked at,” Pedene says. “Under oath, Kate [Mitchell] and I had to provide our stories and who we thought they should look at for accountability. I provided them with several witnesses; so did Kate.”

When Pedene was finally provided a copy of the report in April of this year, she asked investigators what they were going to do to hold the managers accountable, and they told her to wait and see.

So she waited and kept in touch with investigators each month. But to date there’s been no action taken. “Speaking as a public citizen now and not a public relations representative for the VA, I just don’t see any of that accountability that VA says it now has,” she says.

Pedene has stayed silent until now because she was “waiting for VA to do the right thing. My legal rep encouraged caution with the media. I’m still a full-time VA employee. I’ve been an engaged employee for 24 years, and if you include my military time that is 35 years. I believe in the federal government. This has been hard. I never wanted to throw rocks at VA. I loved VA and I still have hope.”

Pedene, who no longer works for Phoenix VA but still works remotely from her Phoenix home as a public relations representative for VA’s main office in Washington, D.C., worries about the long-term impact on whistleblowers.

“It is a very serious offense,” she says. “It’s in the public interest to allow whistleblowers to come forward without fear of reprisal. When organizations are acting unethically, people need to take a stand against that. In the government this shouldn’t mean being banished to the basement for telling the truth.”

Pedene says that allowing whistleblower retaliation is like “allowing a leg infection to continue to fester until it requires amputation. You’re much better off dealing with the issue at the forefront.”

VA says it can’t impose any discipline yet

VA officials claim the reason for the delay in responding to the internal report’s recommendation to discipline the Phoenix VA managers is that it is waiting for the OIG or the Department of Justice to act. VA officials say they can’t discipline the officials yet because of an ongoing criminal investigation.

But the OIG notes that the criminal investigation of Phoenix managers was completed, referred to federal prosecutors and rejected over the summer. There is no pending case.

A letter last week from OIG congressional relations specialist Megan VanLandingham to the House Committee on Veterans Affairs said there is no pending legal case and that VA’s claim is “not accurate.”

When asked to comment on why VA has not yet disciplined Phoenix managers despite an internal VA investigation recommendation to do so 15 months ago, Walinda West, a spokesperson for VA, sent Yahoo News this statement:

“There has been no recommendation given or decision made that VAMC leaders Phoenix (sic) should not be disciplined for whistleblower retaliation. As VA Undersecretary for Health Dr. David Shulkin explained during the December 14 field hearing, the same Phoenix VAMC leaders who were accused of retaliation may also be implicated in other matters that have been the subject of lengthy investigations by the VA Office of the Inspector General and the VA Office of Accountability Review, among others.”

The statement continued, “VA is reviewing the voluminous evidence collected through those investigations and will impose appropriate discipline based on all substantiated misconduct, including but not limited to whistleblower retaliation.”

When Yahoo News asked West to comment on the OIG’s letter stating that there was no pending legal case against Phoenix VA leaders that would prevent the agency from disciplining the managers now, West replied, “We have nothing further to add.”

At the time of the retaliation, Pedene established a close association with Foote, the VA physician who was also fed up with how management was running things in Phoenix. The two of them became confidants. She helped him write letters to the Office of the Inspector General and the VA secretary.

When that went nowhere, she says she helped Foote write to Congress, gave him public relations advice and provided him with the names of reporters she trusted at the Arizona Republic and other media.

That ultimately led to the bombshell that resulted in the worst scandal in the history of VA. In April 2013, Foote told Rep. Jeff Miller, chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, that some 40 veterans had died in Phoenix waiting to be seen by a doctor.

After Miller announced this, the story exploded into the national consciousness. And then things got much worse, as reports of the manipulation of wait times and other bad behavior by VA hospital leadership spread across the country.

Media reports ultimately showed managers and staffers at more than 50 VA hospitals and clinics were manipulating wait times for veterans and participating in other unethical behavior that hurt patients.

“When I was communicating with Dr. Foote and learning about the scandal, we thought it was just Phoenix. We had no idea we were opening Pandora’s box,” Pedene says.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, holds a hearing on Capitol Hill in May 2014. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Lifelong service to her country

A self-described optimist, Pedene spent many proud years in the Navy as a broadcast journalist. She got out in the mid-1980s, but when the Gulf War broke out, she re-enlisted in the Reserve and volunteered to go to the Gulf. Of course, that war ended quickly, but she was happy to be back in the military.

Then her eyesight began deteriorating, and she says the staff at Denver VA took great care of her. When she heard about a job opening at Phoenix VA for the director of public relations, she went for it.

“For a long time Phoenix was the best VA hospital in the country, with some of the best doctors and nurses and researchers anywhere,” she says. “But the management kept changing, and eventually we lost many of our good people.”

Pedene, who won a settlement in her whistleblower case against VA last year, says veterans have always appreciated what she has done for them. “My whistleblowing was all about helping the patients, because when there’s a bad office situation at a VA hospital, the people who suffer the most, of course, are the veterans.”

Foote, who’s retired now but still spends time tutoring and supporting medical students, says he’s kept in close contact with Pedene.

“When you have the U.S. government going after you and wanting to get rid of you for something good that you did, that was very tough for Paula,” says Foote.

Foote recalls that when the VA wait times scandal broke nationally, “it was a sigh of relief for Paula. The real story finally got out that these were not nice people and that there really was egregious wrongdoing in Phoenix. Paula stood up, fought back and held her ground against overwhelming odds. She was courageous and resilient.”

It remains to be seen when or if Robinson, Deering or others at Phoenix who were involved in whistleblower retaliation will be disciplined. Sharon Helman, the former director of Phoenix VA, was fired last year for whistleblower retaliation and improper oversight of the hospital.

But Foote believes nothing will change at Phoenix VA as long as Deering and Robinson are there.

“I wonder what you have to do to be removed from a VA management position,” he says. “They have a long track record of prohibitive practices and whistleblower retaliation, the investigation confirmed that. What is VA waiting for?”

Vietnam veteran Ron Silver Eagle D’Andre, right, listens during a June 2014 town hall meeting concerning Phoenix Veterans Affairs facilities. (Photo: Ralph Freso/AP)

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