On March 26, President Biden announced his intention to nominate Maryanne Donaghy to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP). Established in 2017, the OAWP aims to protect VA whistleblowers but has been accused of failing to follow its statutory mission and of actually harming whistleblowers.
Donaghy is currently an attorney and Senior Advisor at the Biden Institute at the University of Delaware. She has a wide range of previous experience, having worked as a federal prosecutor, accountant, and teacher. Notably, Donaghy worked with the Inspector General of Philadelphia to establish a fully functional Inspector General’s Office for the Philadelphia School District.
“Donaghy has counseled numerous organizations, including non-profits, large corporations and governmental agencies, on response to federal, state and congressional investigations, and on building effective compliance programs,” the White House said Friday in its announcement. “Among other responsibilities, she has worked with a large university involving Title IX investigations, counseled a large pharmaceutical company under federal and state investigation involving marketing practices and provided advice to a hospital system regarding research misconduct allegations.”
If confirmed by the Senate, Donaghy will be taking over an office widely criticized by VA whistleblowers, members of Congress, and third-party watchdog groups. The OAWP was established in 2017 in order to prevent retaliation against whistleblowers and to initiate disciplinary actions against officials who do retaliate.
However, a scathing report published by the VA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) in 2019 found that the OAWP was far from operating as intended. “In its first two years of operation, the OAWP acted in ways that were inconsistent with its statutory authority while it simultaneously floundered in its mission to protect whistleblowers,” according to the report.
Donaghy’s nomination is particularly important because the OIG report found that the OAWP’s previous leaders were central to the issues with the Office. “OAWP leaders made avoidable mistakes early in its development that created an office culture that was sometimes alienating to the very individuals it was meant to protect,” the report states. “Those leadership failures distracted the OAWP from its core mission and likely diminished the desired confidence of whistleblowers and other potential complainants in the operations of the office.”
The OIG report detailed a number of the OAWP’s specific failures. For example, the report claims that OAWP staff investigated a small number of whistleblower complaints and referred most investigations to other organizations within the VA. In hundreds of instances, the OAWP referred whistleblower complaints to the very organizations the whistleblowers were making allegations against. Furthermore, the OAWP frequently failed to protect whistleblowers’ identities when making these referrals, placing them in further danger of retaliation.
The OIG report refers to a specific OAWP investigation which it claims could itself be considered retaliation. “At the request of a senior leader who had social ties to the OAWP Executive Director, the OAWP investigated a whistleblower who had a complaint pending against the senior leader,” the report explains. “After a truncated investigation, the OAWP substantiated the allegations without even interviewing the whistleblower.”
Following the OIG report, members of Congress declared their lack of confidence in the OAWP and called for serious changes to be made to the office. At a hearing on the report, Representative Jack Bergman (R-MI), ranking member of the Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, made a statement relevant to Donaghy’s nomination. “It’s the commander’s responsibility to establish a command climate and also that command culture,” Bergman said. “When you’re a commander coming into a unit that’s already established, good or bad, you inherit what you inherit. It is what it is, and it’s not necessarily what you want it to be — yet.”
In March 2020, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) released its own scathing indictment of the OAWP. Following its own investigation into the Office, POGO also determined that OAWP leaders “appear to have retaliated against several employees who raised concerns about the office’s mismanagement.”
In August 2020, the OAWP released a report on its activities to Congress claiming that it had made several steps to correcting the failures pointed at in the OIG report. In October 2020, however, the VA was criticized for using an intelligence community safety program to intimidate whistleblowers.
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