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Whistleblower complaint filed against St. Pete VA office

Just days after issuing a scathing report pointing out what he said was a “poor, inept and inaccurate” quality control process for benefit claims at the Department of Veterans Affairs St. Petersburg Regional Office, Javier Soto was told that his services as a Ratings Benefits Services Representative “were no longer needed.”

On Tuesday, Soto filed a whistleblower complaint with the federal Merit Systems Protection Board, claiming he was fired in retaliation for pointing out problems at the office, the nation's busiest claims processing center.

Soto, who is seeking his job back, said he was fired without notice or due process and without any investigation into the concerns he raised in his report and several others like it. The complaint also said that management made the decision without consulting with Soto's direct supervisors, or taking into account that he had no prior performance or disciplinary issues and was cited in his reviews for “following orders and working well with everybody.”

Earlier this year, Soto filed a complaint over his termination with the Federal Labor Relations Authority. That complaint is still pending. He also filed a complaint with the federal Office of Special Counsel, which closed the case out without action, but said Soto could take his case up with the Merit Systems Protection Board. Under the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989, an individual who alleges that a personnel action was taken, or not taken, or threatened, because of “whistleblowing” may seek corrective action from the board directly if the Special Counsel does not seek corrective action on his or her behalf, according to the board's website.

Regional office Director Kerrie Witty said Wednesday that she could not comment on Soto's complaint because she had not yet received a copy other than one sent to her by the Tribune. VA officials have said they have “full and complete confidence” in her abilities.

In his complaint, Soto said that the bottom line is how taxpayer funds are being spent.

The studies he conducted of how the office operates, “evidenced violations of law, rule or regulation and gross mismanagement, or a gross waste of funds.”

Some veterans were not paid enough because their claims were not properly investigated, others were paid too much, and in some cases, personnel illegally altered claims decisions, according to the complaint. Inconsistent quality checks exacerbated the problem.

A Government Accountability Report released Wednesday shows similar problems throughout the Veterans Benefits Administration's claim system.

The VBA “does not always follow generally accepted statistical practices, resulting in imprecise performance information,” according to the GAO. Aside from producing “imprecise estimates of national and regional accuracy,” the VBA “reviews about 39 percent (over 5,000) more claims nationwide than is necessary to achieve its desired precision in reported accuracy rates, thereby diverting limited resources from other important quality assurance activities, such as targeted reviews of error-prone cases.”

Soto said his issue isn't personal or a vendetta against management.

“I just want to make sure that veterans are being paid correctly and that federal funds are being used properly,” Soto said in a telephone interview. “That's why most employees show up and what most employees care about. But management just cares about numbers to show they've made a big dent in the backlog and I am worried that big dent is going to come back to haunt us.”

The office, like all claims centers under tremendous pressure to reduce the time veterans wait to have their claims to be approved, has made great strides toward that goal. The backlog of benefits claims at the office — those older than 125 days — dropped 32 percent between January 2013 and 2014, while the total number of claims dropped 22 percent over the same period, said Witty. There were 18,639 backlogged claims and a total of 33,573 claims pending as of Wednesday afternoon, Witty said.

But Soto's complaint offers a peak behind the curtain of an office that has come under scrutiny for delayed benefits claims, poor storage of files that led to delays and missing information and a recent no-confidence vote filed against Witty by employees of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1594, the union representing about 900 workers at the regional office campus at Bay Pines and several other satellite offices, including Orlando.

In her June 30 letter to Soto informing him that he was being let go, a copy of which is contained in the complaint, Witty gave no reason for Soto's termination other than, as an at-will employee, “your services are no longer required.”

However, the decision was the culmination of simmering tension between Soto, still the vice president of Local 1594, and management, according to his complaint. The conflict wasn't over the quality of his work, but the many reports he issued highlighting what he said have been problems at the office and the ensuing reaction by management.

Soto, who was informed of his termination while on authorized leave, issued several studies “detailing violations of law and fraud, waste and abuse and mismanagement related to quality control in beneficiary programs awards,” according to the complaint. One report, issued in December, 2013, “focused on fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement of the field level legal decision-making process quality reviews.”

The studies, according to the complaint, “showed an inconsistent cadre of decision review officers and rating quality control personnel, using over 14 standards of review that were inconsistent with federal law.”

The study also showed “violations of various laws” during the claims process, according to the complaint, including one law requiring that the benefit of the doubt will go to a person filing a benefits claim when there are roughly equal amounts of positive and negative evidence in support of those claims.

Management reacted to that report by placing Soto under surveillance and monitoring, according to the complaint.

In January, Soto was told that senior management requested his extended personnel file, according to the complaint, and that human resources managers were now involved in his case. Meanwhile, he continued to report “accuracy issues” and mention his previous study in monthly reviews.

During this time, he also filed grievances and other notices to management of “fraud, waste, abuse and mismanagement, in personnel systems.

But he wasn't the only one complaining.

“We have 52 pending unfair labor practices and 65 pending grievances,” union president Valorie Reilly told the Tribune last month, including one about the placement of a surveillance camera outside the union office, removed after a Tribune story.

The question of why Soto was fired ultimately reached the House Veterans Affairs Committee, where Soto testified about his concerns regarding the poor quality control of the claims processing system. Committee Chairman Jeff Miller demanded to know why Soto was fired and after receiving information from the regional office, was not satisfied.

None of the documents answered why 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 at the time. “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.”

In his complaint, Soto argues that the information provided by the regional office to the committee was “post-hoc rationalization of administrative matters long settled.”

Despite the level of dissatisfaction by employees that was reflected by the vote of no confidence, VA officials back Witty, whose annual salary of $152,536 makes her the office's highest paid employee, according to records obtained under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

“Ms. Witty is committed to building a collaborative working relationship with the union and to continue engagement with employees to ensure the delivery of high-quality benefits and services to veterans and their families,” said Beth McCoy, VA Deputy Under Secretary for Field Operations. “The Veterans Benefits Administration maintains full and complete confidence in Kerrie Witty and the St. Petersburg leadership team. Over the last year, Ms. Witty led the dedicated, hardworking employees of the St. Petersburg Regional Office in reducing the backlog of pending disability claims by 40 percent while increasing the accuracy of the medical and other issues being decided to 96 percent. As a result, veterans are receiving decisions on their claims faster and with greater accuracy.”

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