As public hearings in the impeachment inquiry against President Trump once again put whistleblowers in the national spotlight, a local whistleblower will be posthumously honored this week for his efforts exposing substandard care at the Manchester VA Medical Center.
Dr. William “Ed” Kois, the late VA Medical Center doctor who prompted a nationwide review after exposing poor conditions at the Manchester VA hospital, is the recipient of the 2019 Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment Award. Kois, who died in July in a car crash in Hampton, will be posthumously honored at the 17th annual First Amendment Awards event this Tuesday, Nov. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Palace Theatre.
Kois used his medical training as a spinal cord specialist to help ease pain and improve the lives of his patients. He used his sense of what is right and his First Amendment rights of free speech, free press and petitioning the government to touch the lives of countless other VA patients.
He led a group of 11 physicians and employees who contacted a federal whistleblower agency and the Boston Globe Spotlight Team to say the Manchester VA was endangering patients.
Bipartisan support for protection of federal whistleblowers was on display last Thursday during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing about a Department of Veterans Affairs internal watchdog report. The inspector general found that an office meant to protect whistleblowers instead inflicted injury.
Employee confidence in the department’s willingness and ability to deal appropriately with whistleblowers has been damaged — and it could take a long time to heal.
Departing from her prepared opening statement, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., chairwoman of the veterans affairs subcommittee, said the findings by the VA’s inspector general “were incredibly disturbing ... The fact that this office seemed to be used as a political weapon, rather than a tool to be able to help veterans get the service they need, that they deserve, that they earned, was a travesty.”
After Texas Rep. John Carter, the top Republican on the panel, read the report about the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, he concluded “that pretty much the whole thing is a wreck ... that everything is broken.”
One wrecked part of the office was its responsibility to keep secret whistleblowers’ identity when they requested anonymity. Inspector General Michael Missal told the hearing the office “failed to fully protect whistleblowers from retaliation.” Former officials in the office, he added, “took the position that allegations of whistleblower retaliation could not be investigated unless the whistleblower was willing to disclose his or her identity.”
Missal’s statement came one day after House Intelligence Committee Democrats rejected a Republican move to subpoena the CIA whistleblower in the Ukraine scandal. Those revelations in the whistleblower’s complaint led to the impeachment inquiry examining President Donald Trump’s alleged effort to use foreign policy for his personal political benefit.
Anonymity is important because many whistleblowers, fearing management reprisals, would not report government wrongdoing without it. VA has a shameful history of retaliation against whistleblowers, particularly after the scandal over the coverup of long patient wait times erupted in 2014.
A Trump executive order established the office, supposedly for whistleblowers’ protection, in April 2017. Congress codified it with legislation two months later.
“We are sending a strong message,” Trump said then about whistleblowers. “We will make sure that they’re protected.”
Instead, the office “failed to establish safeguards sufficient to protect whistleblowers from becoming the subject of retaliatory investigations,” Missal testified in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Former leaders of the office didn’t know what they were doing, according to the report’s findings. They “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,” Missal said.
He said those leadership failures “have had a chilling effect on complainants still being felt today,” though he acknowledged the office’s improvement under the current leadership of Assistant Secretary Tamara Bonzanto.
Also scheduled to be honored at the 17th annual First Amendment Award event this Tuesday are David Tirrell-Wysocki, the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications’ long-time director and former newsman, who will be recognized with the Nackey S. Loeb Quill and Ink Award.
Tirrell-Wysocki has been at the Loeb School since it was founded in 1999, serving as executive director since 2007. He grew the school’s offerings and partnered with other organizations. He is retiring at the end of the year.
Fox Business Network host Trish Reagan is the event’s featured speaker.
The First Amendment Award event is the main fundraiser for the nonprofit school, which was founded by Nackey S. Loeb, the late President and Publisher of the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. It offers free and low-cost classes to children and adults. Instructors from media outlets and businesses around the state teach courses on the First Amendment, journalism, photography, broadcasting, audio and video production, social media and public speaking.
Tickets for the First Amendment Award event are available at www.palacetheatre.org or by calling the theater box office at 668-5588.
For information about the event, visit www.loebschool.org or call 627-0005.
The presenting sponsor is People’s United Bank. Other sponsors and supporters are Eversource Energy, The Brodsky Prize, AutoFair, Bryant “Corky” Messner, AT&T, Brady Sullivan Properties, McLane Middleton and The Common Man Family of Restaurants.
Media partners are the New Hampshire Union Leader, WMUR-TV and WGIR.