Forced to retire or be fired were the choices given Colonel Cynthia Chavez. What did she do wrong? In the summer of June 2014, she did her due diligence and tried to do what she was hired to do—clean up the Veteran Administration Central Alabama Veterans Health Care system’s food and nutrition services; instead of accolades and promotions, the 40 year veteran with outstanding performance reviews, became the victim of whistleblower retaliation, eventual removal from her post, and ultimately, early retirement.
Chavez was hired for a management position at the VA’s Central Alabama kitchen to help the organization fix issues like mismanagement and employee incompetency. Many of the issues were quite apparent quickly after she started the position.
Chavez told NPR that she encountered employees who showed up late and left early and some who didn’t show up at all. There were even more serious cases like an employee who openly drank on the job. Two weeks in, an employee came to Chavez to report a senior staff member who was using veteran appropriated food and supplies to run a catering business on the side. The staff member gave the caveat that if Chavez wasn’t going to do anything about it then they would stay quiet to avoid the backlash that was sure to come from senior members of the administration.
As Chavez worked to remedy many of the problems in the system, she was often met with push-back from the HR department. Even when she was given the go ahead to handle matters as she saw fit, the disciplinary action was nullified. As was the case with the woman accused of essentially stealing and selling supplies from the VA for her own personal catering business. Chavez diligently investigated the woman and reportedly found that she had even stolen steaks and cheesecakes meant for a formal VA dinner, but instead of support, Wiggins, Chavez’s top VA boss told her to back off. When Chavez didn’t back off and continued to try to issue disciplinary action she was accused of abuse of authority and formal complaints were made to the union where Chavez received a “no confidence” vote.
Not only were Chavez’s hands becoming tied but she became the victim of whistleblower retaliation. She even reported getting anonymous threatening messages, “This isn’t the army… this is the VA… and we will get you.” Chavez is one of many employees who has experienced this “mafia-like” culture. A culture of intimidation and harassment of any whistleblower who tries to rectify the gross mismanagement, noncompliance, malpractice and illegal activities within the VA. Clearly the problems are widespread with nearly 40% of the total formal whistleblower retaliation complaints made by government employees against federal agencies have been made against the Veterans Administration.
Chavez was asked to resign or be fired. Even after filing complaints to the VA’s whistleblower protection agency created to protect people like her, Chavez was forced out of her position. Now four years later, and two additional complaints to other organizations created to protect whistleblowers, Chavez has been left waiting to have her proverbial day in court.