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House committee demands VA records on fired St. Pete whistleblower

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Published:   |   Updated: July 22, 2014 at 08:33 PM

Despite a demand from the House Veterans Affairs Committee, the Veterans Benefits Administration St. Petersburg Regional Office failed to explain why it fired an employee days after he delivered a scathing report about operations there, the committee chairman said Tuesday evening.

The VA provided the committee with some documents shortly before 6 p.m. Tuesday, said U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, the committee chairman. But none of the documents answered why the employee, Javier Soto, was fired, he said.

“VA has a long and sordid history of both concealing negative information from the public and retaliating against whistleblowers,” Miller said in a statement to the Tribune. “This case seems to fit that mold to a tee. It’s been more than a week since we asked VA to explain why Javier Soto was fired. To date, the department has refused to do so. Rest assured, however, we will keep the pressure on the department until we have a full accounting of the facts.”

Officials from the VA in Washington and the St. Petersburg Regional Office failed to respond to emails seeking comment.

Monday night, Miller demanded that the VBA’s St. Petersburg Regional Office turn over personnel records for Soto and the reason for his firing. Soto was a former ratings specialist and official with the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1594, the union representing workers there.

In his written testimony for the House committee July 14, Soto, who worked for the regional office for four years, said, “The pressure to focus on production and complete cases has resulted in less attention on quality to meet ‘numbers’ goals,” He also testified that four days after delivering a scathing report on how the office handles veterans’ claims, he was fired.

Soto’s firing came after acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson told the VA’s 341,000 employees that he “will not tolerate intimidation or retaliation against whistleblowers who speak out about improprieties or wrongdoing.”

Last week, U.S. Rep. David Jolly, a committee member, reached out to officials from the St. Petersburg office for answers about what happened to Soto. Miller followed up, asking that regional office officials cooperate with Jolly.

Monday evening, frustrated that no answers have been forthcoming, Miller fired off a letter to Veterans Affairs officials in Washington and Kerrie Witty, the director of the regional office, demanding answers.

“As you are aware, allegations of retaliation and improper managerial action within the Department of Veterans Affairs are very serious matters that fall within the oversight jurisdiction of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs,” wrote Miller.

Angered after hearing no response to questions he and Jolly raised, Miller demanded the regional office turn over Soto’s personnel files and any documentation supporting his dismissal by today.

Miller also stated that he is going to contact the VA’s Office of Inspector General to determine if any records had been “destroyed, modified, altered, deleted, removed, relocated, inserted or otherwise negligently or intentionally mishandled, in the context of this investigation of the conduct of the St. Petersburg Regional Office.”

Tuesday morning, Jolly said he too was frustrated by the lack of answers.

“I share Chairman Miller’s frustration in not getting a timely response from the Department of Veterans Affairs to our request regarding Mr. Soto’s records,” Jolly said in an email to The Tampa Tribune. “At a time when the VA’s credibility has already been called into question, they should respect the committee’s oversight authority and expedite the delivery of files. The allegations raised by Mr. Soto are extremely serious and demand a thorough and prompt response both to protect the integrity of the department as well as the confidence of our community.”

Soto has declined comment.

Last week, several days after being asked to respond to Soto’s testimony before Congress, regional office assistant director and interim spokeswoman Suzanne Nunziata did not address his personnel status or the specifics of his report on the office. Instead, she forwarded a copy of VBA Undersecretary Allison Hickey’s testimony on how the VBA was addressing the initial claims backlog, claims accuracy, workload issues and concerns that some offices were gaming the dates of initial claims.

Nunziata also provided a news release on actions the VBA is taking to “ensure the integrity and accuracy of claims systems and processes,” a news release on Gibson’s statement about not tolerating intimidation or retaliation against whistleblowers and a list of the top 15 VBA accomplishments, including reducing the backlog of claims older than 125 days from a peak of 611,000 in March 2013 to 274,000 as of mid-July.

As of last week, there were nearly 20,000 claims considered backlogged at the office, a reduction of about 1,000 since May and 41 percent since March 2013, according to regional office officials.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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