A Department of Veterans Affairs official has taken the novel step of filing a Freedom of Information Act request against her own VA department in order to learn what a whistleblower has been saying about her.
The whistleblower is Scott Davis, a well-known VA official who has testified in Congress and has made several TV appearances about the troubled VA. He told the Washington Examiner on Monday that he was stripped of some of his final duties in his Atlanta job, weeks after warning that retaliation against whistleblowers is on the rise at the VA.
The other VA official is Angel Lawrence, director of the Health Eligibility Center in Atlanta. Lawrence filed a FOIA request to obtain any email Davis might possess that was sent between Lawrence and any other VA employee.
Her filing was backed up in an email obtained by the Washington Examiner. In that email, a subordinate emailed Davis to note Lawrence’s FOIA request, and asked that Davis comply with it by last week:
FOIA is usually the tool people outside the government use to obtain documents and other information about what the government is doing. But the VA said Lawrence is within her right to file the request, because she did so as a private citizen, not as a VA employee.
“The referenced Freedom of Information Act request for Scott Davis’ communications appears to have been submitted by a VA employee in his or her capacity as a private citizen,” said a VA spokesman. “All citizens have the right to seek information held by federal agencies under the Freedom of Information Act, and all agencies are required to provide information that is properly requested, unless a statutory exemption from disclosure applies.”
The official also said the VA has “no control over FOIA requests made by VA employees in their capacity as private citizens.”
But Davis charges that Lawrence is abusing her role as a senior VA employee, and is effectively using FOIA to attack him as a whistleblower. Davis said Lawrence is using the FOIA law to find out what Davis said about her as a whistleblower to the Office of Inspector General.
Specifically, Davis said Lawrence appears to be after information Davis sent to the OIG about how Lawrence has identified him as someone who should be fired from the VA because he’s a whistleblower. But current law says those communications should be protected, and Congress has just passed another law aimed at protecting whistleblowers, which will be signed into law this week.
“It’s highly inappropriate for her to do what she’s doing,” Davis said. “Imagine if Donald Trump filed a FOIA request to James Comey.”
And while the VA said Lawrence’s request was done as a private citizen, Davis said she has gotten subordinates to push him to comply with that request, a privilege that no private citizen would have.
The VA on Monday declined to answer specific questions about whether officials in Washington would weigh in on whether Lawrence has the right to use FOIA to seek communications that could be protected by whistleblower laws, or whether it would allow officials in Atlanta to sort that out.
“We always look into allegations made by whistleblowers,” one official said, without getting into the details of Davis’ case.
The official also said whistleblower protection is also a “top priority” for President Trump and VA Secretary David Shulkin, and said VA officials “look forward tot he bill signing this week.”