An employee at the embattled Veterans Affairs hospital in Arizona is facing a punishment ranging from “reprimand to removal,” Fox News has learned, for publicly revealing the name of a colleague he claims harassed him after the whistle-blower exposed exceedingly long wait times for patients at the Phoenix facility.
In a letter dated March 30, the VA accused scheduling manager Kuauhtemoc Rodriguez of violating “privacy standards you are expected to enforce [and] breaching your responsibilities as a supervisor,” by sending the media a copy of an email he wrote to the hospital director that detailed alleged harassment and included the name of a colleague as one of the top offenders.
The VA claims divulging the name of a fellow employee violates its policy prohibiting release of “Sensitive Personal Information” (SPI) without permission. This includes “education, financial transactions, medical history, criminal or employment history, and information that can be used to distinguish or trace the individual’s identity.”
“Just reporting someone's name shouldn't be secret -- we are government employees,” Rodriguez told Fox News. “They are trying to twist anything they can to punish me.”
The Phoenix VA hospital was the epicenter of allegations ranging from lax care to misconduct in 2014 when a scheduling clerk became the first whistle-blower to disclose that a secret appointment wait list existed and dozens of would-be patients had died.
In a report released in October 2016, the VA Inspector General's Office (OIG) found that 215 deceased patients had open appointments at the Phoenix facility on the day they died.
Rodriguez complained to the VA inspector general last November that 90 veterans still were waiting more than 400 days for care and five had died without seeing a doctor. In February, he filed another complaint alleging more than 4,000 veterans had their appointments inexplicably canceled by the Phoenix VA after they already had waited more than 180 days, documents show.
Whistle-blowers across the nation started reporting their own VA horrors, including Brandon Coleman, a Phoenix counselor who told the inspector general that many suicidal veterans were not getting timely care.
Being a whistle-blower comes with a price: many say they have endured a hostile work environment while waiting for their complaints to be remedied. Coleman and Rodriguez are two who went public with allegations and later claimed they received continued harassment at work.
Rodriguez detailed his alleged mistreatment in lengthy memos to the Office of Special Counsel, a department that reports directly to the president and is charged with protecting whistle-blowers. He said incidents included his desk being moved into a closet with no air conditioning; his promotion being halted; being told he was better suited for a rural outpost because “you have native blood”; and facing an increased workload.
The VA stood by the warning sent to Rodriguez.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs is obligated to ensure the confidentiality of its beneficiaries’ and employees’ personal identifying information,” the VA said in a statement regarding Rodriguez's pending discipline. “Employees are expected to act in a manner that is consistent with VA’s core values of Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect and Excellence. Leadership should take action to ensure the safety of our patients and staff and preserve the integrity of our mission within applicable laws and regulations.”
The agency has given Rodriguez until April 13 to respond to its claims, and then an assistant chief said he would impose discipline ranging from “reprimand to removal.”
Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, has taken a dim view of the VA's actions.
“It is unacceptable that any law-abiding whistle-blower would be punished for bringing the issues within VA to light,” Roe said in a statement, adding he has introduced legislation to enhance whistle-blower protections and allow for easier suspension, demotion or firing of bad employees.
That bill, the VA Accountability First Act of 2017, recently passed the House and forbids the VA from suspending or firing any employee without permission from the Special Counsel. It also shortens the amount of time the VA takes to investigate alleged misconduct, such as in Rodriguez's case.
The First Amendment Coalition, a free speech advocacy group that aids the public in battles against government secrecy, also said the VA's use of a privacy statute is overly broad if it claims names of employees should not be divulged.
“To threaten discipline up to and included firing seems at the very least heavy-handed; it's not like the Social Security or bank account numbers were released,” said David Snyder, the coalition's executive director.
Snyder said there could be instances where Rodriguez's reprimand may be technically correct, such as if he knowingly violated an agency guideline. But where the general public is concerned, most federal employee names do not fall under a category of “secret.”
“Is the mere existence of an employee's name secret or to be withheld from the public? Certainly not,” Snyder said. “The mere existence of a name isn't something they are entitled to redact” in document requests.
The media often uses the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to obtain documents, which often include emails naming the sender and recipient.
“What is redactable is medical, personnel or similar files,” Snyder said. “As a general matter, that is understood to mean sensitive private information. Just a name by itself does not fall into that category.”
Tori Richards is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.