ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs fired an employee in retaliation for seeking congressional help in finding his lost VA benefits claims folder, federal investigators said Tuesday on the employee’s first day back to work.
Bradie Frink, a disabled Army veteran who was hired as a clerk in February 2013 at the VA’s Baltimore Regional Office, also has received back pay for the months of unemployment and compensatory damages for emotional distress, in addition to being hired back, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel said.
“The constitutional right to petition Congress must be guaranteed for all Americans,” said Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner. “Federal agencies cannot deny their employees this right even if it leads to scrutiny of their operations. The VA’s leadership worked with OCS to resolve this troubling case.”
Officials declined to say specifically how much money Frink received.
Investigators with the government watchdog agency that probes retaliation against whistleblowers said the VA violated the Civil Service Reform Act when it discharged Frink, who was fired after he complained to Sen. Barbara Mikulski’s office on June 5, 2013, following several requests by him to locate his claims folder. Mikulski’s office made inquiries at a time when the VA’s Baltimore Regional Office was under scrutiny for how it processed veterans’ benefits claims.
Frink’s benefits claims folder was found shortly after Mikulski’s office inquired, and his claim was processed, said Nick Schwellenbach, a spokesman for the U.S. Office of Special Counsel. Frink had been trying to make changes to his service-connected disability payments.
VA officials began talking about firing Frink within two weeks of his complaint to Congress, investigators said. He was fired on July 12, 2013 due to alleged misconduct. Investigators found the VA’s allegations lacked evidentiary support. They also determined management’s testimony was inconsistent, and other witnesses did not corroborate the agency’s version of events. Investigators also found that termination was an excessive penalty for the alleged misconduct.
Investigators recommended that the VA consider disciplinary action against two of Frink’s supervisors.
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