In a letter to Denis McDonough, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) urges the VA to answer questions about alleged whistleblower retaliation and lack of action in responding to a congressional probe of issues whistleblowers raised regarding ethics.
Grassley opens the letter by mentioning an article published on WNN and written by Jason Foster of Empower Oversight. Foster’s October article details a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in which Empower Oversight requested information from the VA about the agency’s reactions to Grassley’s earlier inquiries about a case of potential whistleblower retaliation and culture.
The situation in question involves the alleged conduct of Charmain Bogue, Executive Director of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA). An April 4 press release about Grassley’s first inquiries about the situation explains that whistleblower allegations centered around “an alleged VA Office of General Counsel memorandum that determined Bogue should recuse herself from any and all VA matters involving her husband’s firms.” The whistleblowers also alleged that “after internal warnings about the need to protect market-sensitive information, that information may have been leaked, which was then publicly traded on, potentially affecting stock prices and retail investors.”
Charmain Bogue’s husband Barrett Bogue is the Senior Communications Advisor for Veterans Education Success (VES), according to Grassley’s most recent letter to Secretary McDonough. Foster’s article on WNN explains that Barrett Bogue “ran an outside consulting firm that did work for those trying to influence his wife, Charmain.” According to Foster, VES “paid Barrett Bogue while advocating that his wife’s agency take enforcement actions to exclude certain schools from GI Bill benefits. Some of the schools were operated by publicly traded companies, making information about any enforcement action potentially valuable to traders on Wall Street.”
This alleged conflict of interest was the focus of Empower Oversight’s FOIA request. In response to the FOIA request, the VA produced 579 pages of documents: in his letter, Grassley says that the newly released documents reveal that “Mrs. Bogue may have failed to recuse herself from business dealings with VES.”
Foster’s article further highlights the FOIA request’s findings and how they illustrate VA staffers’ reactions to Grassley’s numerous demands for answers regarding the allegations. “It’s a sordid, complicated mess that could use more sunlight and oversight to sort out properly. And, the whistleblowers who have tried to improve the VA with their disclosures should be applauded—not attacked as a diversion to avoid accountability.” He points to this case as another example of a culture of mistreating whistleblowers at the VA. At the end of his article, Foster urges Secretary McDonough to “[t]ake a hard line against retaliators, embrace transparency, and release the rest of the documents.”
In his letter to Secretary McDonough, Grassley delves into the documents revealed in the FOIA request. “Despite repeated warnings from VA ethics attorneys, and accompanying ethics guidance to Mrs. Bogue herself, it is alleged that Mrs. Bogue did not recuse herself from dealings with her husband’s consulting firm’s client, VES, after all. In addition, VA has refused to disclose whether proper recusal procedures were followed with respect to VES’s business dealings with VA,” Grassley writes.
Grassley also highlights that “multiple whistleblowers have contacted my staff seeking to disclose waste, fraud, and abuse at VA. These disclosures include allegations of whistleblower reprisal by VA officials.” He writes, “Protecting whistleblowers and safeguarding their confidentiality is critical to encourage employees to identify problems so they can be fixed. Therefore, executive branch officials and managers should go to great lengths to respect and honor whistleblowers who risk their careers, and sometimes lives, to expose wrongdoing. However, FOIA documents reveal that at least one senior VA official may have engaged in retaliatory behavior against an individual he believed made protected disclosures to my office.”
At the end of his letter, Grassley requests answers from the VA to his April, July, September, and now November letters demanding answers to his queries. He also includes more questions for the agency in this November letter for the VA to answer in writing. Grassley demands that the VA release more information that was not included in the FOIA documents, how many VA staffers have been “recused from the VA’s efforts to respond to my inquiries,” and if the agency has “since developed guidance with respect to handling material non-public, market-sensitive information.”
Grassley is demanding answers to all of his previous inquiries and this November letter by November 26, 2021. “It is an absolute shame that this administration continues to espouse transparency while engaging in conduct like this,” he concludes.