FOX 29 Investigates: VA Whistleblower's Reassignment

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Philadelphia-based Dr. David Shulkin was unanimously confirmed Monday night as Secretary of Veterans' Affairs.

It's a department beleaguered by patient care scandals. Some of those resulted from VA workers blowing the whistle.

 

One such local worker, who divulged unsanitary conditions in kitchens, recently spoke out publicly for the first time. FOX 29's Jeff Cole has his story.

Troy Thompson joined the Navy as a young man. The Kansas City-native served thousands of meals aboard ships at sea, was honored with a medal for his work, and saw the world, including Berlin Germany, Guam and Spain.

He eventually landed at the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center in Philadelphia, working his way up to food service production chief.

In 2012, he reported management wasn't doing enough to stop unsanitary practices or control pests and insects.

"Basically, we had areas that weren't being cleaned," he said.

The day he told a supervisor, he says he got reassigned to mostly janitorial work – like scrubbing the morgue: "They sent me to a lab area to process body parts and clean up urine and blood vials and dump biohazard materials."

The VA later fined him $75 and tried to fire him for a past kitchen infraction, he said: "After about several months, she brought me back down and issued me a proposed removal for eating those sandwiches."

That's right, he and coworkers shared four sandwiches worth $5 total before they went stale.

"The sandwiches were expired, just within a couple of days, so it's not like they were moldy or things like that," he told us.

Thompson is not alone. There's been a reported surge of VA employees coming forward in recent years to expose mismanagement and problems with veterans’ care. Some turn to higher-ups, inspectors general or local authorities. Thompson enlisted the help of an independent federal agency, the Office of Special Counsel.

"OSC helps employees make disclosures of wrongdoing and those who experience retaliation for doing so," said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner.

She testified before a congressional committee about VA-related cases in 2015, when she wrote up Thompson's case.

Her agency got the VA to conduct a probe that "substantiated" Thompson's "allegations," finding "violations … of policy, gross mismanagement, and a substantial and specific danger to public health and safety." Recommendations for improvement were made.

OSC also found Thompson was owed money.

FOX 29 Investigates got a copy of that no-fault settlement – in which the VA agreed to give Thompson $30,000 – when he alleged in court the department paid late.

A VA spokeswoman said a confidentiality agreement prevents her from discussing Thompson's case. But the department is "committed to whistleblower protection," she wrote, "and creating an environment in which employees feel free to voice their concerns without fear of reprisal."

She added the medical center "has zero tolerance for intimidation or retaliation."

The OSC's Lerner said during her congressional testimony, "It's a sign of progress that the V-A leadership agreed to the expedited review process and also agreed to resolve many more cases through our regular processes."

Thompson got back to cooking after two-plus years on that laboratory detail.

"If the Office of Special Counsel had not intervened, I'd probably still be there to this day," he said.

Thompson says the kitchens are cleaner now, but he still has pending complaints about bad treatment. The VA also couldn't comment on that.

Meanwhile, Congress is looking at a bill that would close a loophole and enhance protections for whistleblowers who defy a supervisor's direction to violate rules or regulations.

A spokesman says OSC supports the bill.

Have a tip for the FOX 29 Investigates team? Email us at fox29.undercover@foxtv.com or like Jeff Cole's Facebook page and send us a message!

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