Another proof of why unions are important in the workplace.
An eye doctor at the Cincinnati Veterans Affairs Medical Center never thought doing the right thing like reporting fraud against the Department of Veterans Affairs would get her in trouble.
For several years, Dr. Kelly Thompson, a member of AFGE Local 2031 who had been with the VA since 2006, was trying to look out for her agency. As Eye Clinic Director at the hospital, which partners with the University of Cincinnati Medical School, Dr. Thompson found that some high-ranking individuals at the medical school were committing time fraud and getting paid for hours they didn’t actually work for the VA.
She also found that some university leaders who worked part time at the VA were referring patients from the VA to their own private practices in the Cincinnati area so that the VA Choice Program, which pays the bills when veterans seek care in the private sector, would pay the bills for the VA patients when they would go to that outside clinic.
She reported the violations to her superiors. Testimony at hearing revealed that the VA supported the termination of the contract between the Cincinnati VA and the medical school. The university leadership, who wanted the contract with the VA to be renewed, not only threatened Dr. Thompson’s career, but also threatened the VA that the medical school would withhold much-needed medical school residents from conducting residencies at the Cincinnati VA hospital if the VA did not take action against Dr. Thompson.
Instead of protecting their own employee and investigating the alleged fraud, the VA did the opposite. They removed the doctor from her position as Residency Director and demoted her to Staff Optometrist at the VA Community Based Outpatient Clinic in Clermont, Ohio. In 2019, they came up with fabricated allegations to terminate the doctor, who had outstanding and excellent performance records prior to her removal.
After her removal, the doctor suffered severe financial, professional, and personal hardships. She did not deserve all this - she did the right thing in reporting fraud, and no one at the VA had her back. AFGE Local 2031 took the case to arbitration.
At the hearing, the VA’s unsubstantiated claims against her quickly unraveled. They claimed, for example, that she committed timecard fraud and didn’t actually work the days she was supposed to work. They claimed that there were no clinical notes from her those days in question. AFGE knew there were clinical notes in the system to rebut the Agency’s claims, but the VA denied the Union’s request for information. Luckily, the doctor was able to get some the relevant notes and presented them to the VA prior to her firing.
“The VA basically tried to hide the evidence that would have exonerated her, and then completely ignored the exculpatory evidence she did provide before her termination,” said AFGE District 6 Legal Rights Attorney, Matthew Gunn, who represented the doctor. “Imagine trying to PROVE that you worked on a specific date 5 years ago, but you don’t have access to work emails, or other work products to prove that you did work on that day. How would you prove you worked that day? That was the position the agency tried to put the grievant in.”
Due to a lack of evidence against her, the VA quickly conceded they could not support their decision to terminate her, however it insisted she was not retaliated against because she blew the whistle. Our union had to prove that her removal was indeed a result of retaliation for whistleblowing – and we did.
‘She was a whistleblower’
After cross-examining VA officials, the arbitrator found that the VA indeed retaliated against the doctor for reporting fraud. She quoted our union several times, indicating our strong argument and the VA’s lack of convincing evidence and credibility.
“After a complete review of all the evidence and testimony, I find that the Union has met its burden of proof and that Dr. Thompson faced disciplinary action and retaliatory action because she was a whistleblower,” wrote Arbitrator Randi Lowitt.
“As the Union pointed out, the removal was ultimately found to be baseless, the evidence produced by the VA to sustain the removal was incomplete, and no party other than Dr. Thompson even made efforts to determine the validity of the charges preferred,” she added. “Ultimately, the preferring of charges was done backwards – the VA determined that it wanted to remove Dr. Thompson and then set about trying to make a case to do so.”
The arbitrator directed the VA to reinstate the doctor back into the Residency Director position and pay her full back pay with interest dating back to Aug. 25, 2019. She also ordered the VA to pay her $178,000 in pain and suffering damages and out-of-pocket expenses incurred as a result of the agency’s retaliation, in addition to all attorney’s fees.
AFGE congratulates District 6 for a job well done!