VA Inspector General Demands Whistleblower Documents Sent to Watchdog GroupJun 13, 2014
The Office of Inspector General of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has subpoenaed documents turned over anonymously to the independent watchdog group Project on Government Oversight (POGO). Whistleblowers’ identities could be revealed.
A subpoena delivered to POGO on May 30 demands the group turn over information it has collected about abuses and mismanagement at VA medical facilities, Techdirt.com reports. The subpoena demands all records POGO has received from current or former VA employees and other individuals, including veterans. The subpoena requests records related to "wait times, access to care, and/or patient scheduling issues at the Phoenix, Arizona VA Healthcare System and any other VA medical facility."
The inspector general’s office needs this information to complete its investigation, but the subpoena could undermine the confidentiality promised to whistleblowers who submitted documents to POGO's web site VAOversight.org. According to Techdirt, nearly 700 people have turned over information to POGO's secure drop box since the site was launched in early May. POGO advised senders to maintain their anonymity through such steps as not submitting documents from work phones, computers or fax machines and by sending materials as encrypted messages. Whistleblowers who failed to take these types of preventive measures, or who might be traced back by other means, can now be exposed, Techdirt reports.
POGO has advised the VA Inspector General it will not comply with the subpoena. According to its letter, “POGO has always taken the position that the First Amendment protects POGO's right to protect the whistleblowers, sources, and insiders who come to us with information or assist in POGO’s investigations.” The letter also points out that the Inspector General should already have access to the type of information it is seeking through its own hotline.
The blog site Firedoglake says the Department of Justice “believes it can subpoena multiple records, maybe all the records something like Facebook has, with one piece of paper.” While a specific search warrant is needed to access an individual’s emails on a home computer, if “DOJ issues a subpoena to say Google, they can potentially vacuum up every Gmail message ever sent.”
The possibility that the government may gain access to documents submitted anonymously is likely to deter some potential whistleblowers from submitting documents.