An independent federal agency has just determined that the Department of Veterans Affairs retaliated against whistleblower Bradie Frink because he tried to get the VA to find his lost claims folder.
According to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC), retaliation started after Frink, a disabled veteran and employee at the Baltimore Regional Office (BRO) of the Veterans Benefits Administration, contacted Congress when he realized that the VA couldn’t add one of his children as a beneficiary to his disability payments. The reason? Employees couldn’t even locate his claims folder.
As policy, a veteran’s claim folder cannot be stored at the same office where that veteran works, in order to maintain impartiality. When Frink was hired as a clerk in February 2013, the VA attempted to move the folder out to another regional office, but soon discovered that it was lost, even though it appeared in the computer system. Frink initially made several requests, asking the VA to try and locate his folder.
He tried for months. Nothing worked. That’s when Frink decided to contact Sen. Barbara Mikulski on June 5, 2013, with a complaint that the VA was unable to make important service-connected disability payments to him and his family. Mikulski launched an inquriy and forwarded the complaint letter over to BRO, which sparked near immediate retaliation. Incidentally, during the time when Mikulski sent the letter over, BRO was being watched for how it was processing benefits claims.
VA officials started discussing ways to terminate Frink. They succeeded in firing him on July 12, 2013, during his probationary period, despite a clean performance record. Officials alleged that Frink engaged in misconduct, but OSC didn’t buy it.
“OSC’s investigation determined that the VA’s allegations about Mr. Frink lacked evidentiary support; management’s testimony was inconsistent and lacked candor; other witnesses did not corroborate the agency’s version of the events; and termination was an excessive penalty for the alleged misconduct,” the OSC said in a statement. “Further, OSC found one of the VA officials involved in Mr. Frink’s termination showed animus and all three officials involved had a clear motive to retaliate against him.”
With the OSC investigation in hand, VA officials have reinstated Frink with back pay, as well as damages for emotional distress. After a long, hard fight, Frink starts work again Tuesday, over two years after he was fired by supervisors.
“The constitutional right to petition Congress must be guaranteed for all Americans. Federal agencies cannot deny their employees this right even if it leads to scrutiny of their operations,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner in a statement.