Department of Veterans Affairs whistleblower and Army veteran Vanessa Lech says she was retaliated against by her supervisor and driven out of her job for calling attention to safety issues and sexual harassment at a facility in New Mexico.
In October 2014, Lech started off as a social worker in the Health Care for Homeless Veterans (HCHV) program in Albuquerque, N.M., after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke with a Master’s degree in social work.
Trouble started almost immediately when Lech decided to report her supervisor on Nov. 17 for threatening her colleagues and creating a toxic work environment. According to Lech, retaliation kicked in from that very same supervisor the next day and didn’t stop until she was finally forced out of her job.
In December, Lech filed a formal grievance through the American Federation of Government Employees. Lech pointed to retaliation and discriminatory behavior. Her supervisor had threatened her social work license because she was “violating social work ethics” by not spying on other employees. Following Lech’s refusal to cooperate with spying, the supervisor rescinded a promise to allow Lech to have Christmas off, so she could visit her active-duty husband.
Further instances of retaliation since then included sending Lech to see a client who was not even supposed to be seen off of VA property because of repeated death threats he had made to staff. Nevertheless, Lech was not informed of the behavioral flags and was also sent alone. The supervisor also regularly changed her job duties to permanently increase her workload and place her on an hourly work schedule. This meant that Lech had to come into the facility after hours without pay.
Her male colleague, the only one out of three males to formally raise the issue, also filed a complaint against the supervisor alleging sexual harassment. The supervisor apparently would regularly wearing see-through clothing and miniskirts to work, and as a result, eventually attracted a bit of a reputation among the veterans.
But nothing came of Lech’s complaints. Facility management ignored her requests for answers and assistance, prompting her to contact Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich and the Office of Special Counsel for help. In her OSC complaint, Lech also detailed numerous safety violations in the homeless program also brought up by her colleagues, which management refused to address. OSC said there wasn’t anything they could do to ameliorate the problem, aside from referring the safety violations to Secretary Robert McDonald.
Some of those issues included a complete absence of controlled access points in one of the buildings, meaning that mentally unstable veterans, often troubled with behavioral issues, would wander down the halls. In that building, there is no security desk or reception. Many employees felt unsafe.
Additionally, the facility suffered from a lack of government vehicles necessary for social workers to transport homeless veterans to medical appointments and counseling sessions. Even worse, any vehicles that happened to be available were poorly maintained and unsafe. Sometimes social workers had to cancel appointments for lack of vehicles.
One time, when Lech was driving one of the cars, the brakes failed. A mechanics later determined that the brakes on the car were 95 percent worn.
After countless months, Heinrich’s office finally received a response from Andrew Welch, the director of the facility in March 2015.
“A fact-finding investigation was initiated by our Behavioral Health Care Line (BHCL) immediately following receipt of the grievance from the Union,” the letter from Welch read. “This extensive investigation was completed on February 12, 2015, and substantiated some of the complaints expressed in the grievance…Any disciplinary action deemed appropriate as a result of this investigation will be determined and administered by BHCL leadership in coordination with Human Resources Management Service.”
Lech followed up with an email in April to Welch to let him know that the retaliation was still ongoing and only getting worse. Heinrich’s staff asked Lech if they could open up another inquiry. She agreed, but it was already too late. Her last day in the program was on April 23, 2015, as the retaliation was taking a toll on her health.
A VA official from the Veterans Integrated Service Network (VISN) soon convinced her to return to work in June pending a permanent transfer out of the facility to North Carolina. The first day back at work, a supervisor at the facility called Lech and wanted to know more about her formal grievance complaint—without Lech’s lawyer present. Apparently, Lech’s former supervisor wanted the disciplinary actions reversed.
It was then that the VISN executive told her that it was unclear whether a permanent transfer was even possible. At that point in time, Lech took leave without pay in late July. Her supervisor remains employed.
“A culture of fear, retaliation and toxic leadership plagues Veterans Affairs, an organization, which is supposed to consistently provide high quality services for our military Veterans,” Vanessa Lech told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “VA management is more focused on bonus money, bad press and doubling down on the status quo instead of being concerned about the well being of Veterans and VA employees.”
Lech’s resignation will take effect on Sept. 24, 2015. She’s still waiting for that transfer.
“Whistleblower retaliation is unacceptable and intolerable at VA,” VA spokesman Henry L. Huntley told TheDCNF. “We are working hard to create and sustain a climate that embraces constructive dissent, welcomes critical feedback and ensures compliance with legal requirements. That climate mandates commitment to whistleblower protections to all employees. Secretary McDonald has made clear that retaliation against whistleblowers is not tolerated at VA. Those who are found to have engaged in retaliatory behavior in these instances are currently under review and disciplinary actions will be forthcoming where claims were substantiated.”