SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — A KPIX 5 investigation into allegations of sexual harassment of employees at Bay Area Veterans Administration clinics is getting national attention.
“He would just be standing in the doorway, looking me up and down, as if he could see through my clothes,” said a woman we’ll call Becky, who works at the VA clinic in Martinez. For months, she said her supervisor has been harassing her, even asking for sex in exchange for a job transfer.
But when Becky reported the abuse, she said no one would help. She’s one of three women that have come forward, all claiming they’ve complained about the same supervisor, Darryl Milburn.
They say nothing has been done to discipline him. Instead, Milburn punished two of the women who filed formal complaints against him with write-ups and demotions.
It turns out a similar scenario played out at a Colorado VA clinic with another supervisor. “He hung around my desk quite often, he would tell sexual jokes,” said Cheryl Franklin, one of five nurses who claim they were sexually harassed by their boss. “He would come up to me and rub my shoulders,” said Franklin. “If I told him to stop, he would say, ‘Do you really mean it?’ Yes, I mean it.”
Franklin said the supervisor eventually approached her in a stairwell, pushed her up against the wall and tried to kiss her. “He felt like he had me cornered,” said Franklin. “And there was nothing else I could do.”
In a report to the VA police, another nurse claimed the same supervisor “kissed her on the neck” and “asked for oral sex.” Another reported he “reached into her pants and pulled her underwear to give her a wedgie.”
But when they decided to blow the whistle they, too, said no one believed them: “We were the bad guys for reporting this sexual assault,” said Debora Casados. She was sent to a windowless basement to work alone. “You have to have a card to get in, because it was always locked. I was so petrified,” said Casados.
Two other nurses were fired, and more than two years later, the case is still not settled. “The other employees continued to work for the VA and suffered all sorts of horrible retaliation, including the VA started two investigations of the women,” said attorney Patricia Bangert. “The second investigation ended in May. It was all very secret, that investigation resulted in recommendations that the women be disciplined.”
The VA’s been in trouble before for retaliating against employees that blew the whistle. In previous cases, it was about long delays in caring for veterans. Now our investigation of employee harassment and retaliation could put the agency in the hot seat again.
“My initial reaction was one of outrage,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-SF/Peninsula). She sits on a newly-formed whistleblower protection commission in Washington. “We know that the VA throughout the country has had very serious problems,” said Speier. “We have spent a lot of taxpayer dollars trying to make the VA system work. And I find this retaliatory action within the VA totally unacceptable.
VA officials told us they can’t talk about specific cases for privacy reasons. But the medical director for Northern California did agree to discuss the complaint process. “We try and take every claim seriously,” said David Stockwell. He said the agency has set up an Office of Resolution Management that conducts impartial investigations. “The whole reason we have an independent outside review is so that we can’t have the cronyism of protecting and circling the wagons,” said Stockwell.
But according to the VA’s own data, less than four percent of employee complaints filed with the ORM resulted in findings of discrimination in fiscal 2014.
We asked Stockwell about that:
Christin Ayers: “That’s next to nothing. Is it really a fair process if that is what the numbers are showing?”
Stockwell: “We’ve made a very easy process, a very accessible process for someone to say, ‘I don’t think I was treated fairly.’ So people take advantage of that.”
Ayers: “It is very difficult, I think for a logical person to hear that all of the complaints that you received that 96 percent of them have absolutely no basis whatsoever.”
Stockwell: “We don’t make that determination, it’s done outside of our VA medical center.”
If employees don’t like the outcome, “They could certainly vote with their feet as far as their employment decisions of working for the VA,” said Stockwell.
But the women we talked say they’re staying put to fight for their rights. “I have to expose him so this man won’t keep doing this to women,” said Becky.
Now they have backup. “I will do everything in my power to make sure that they are treated as whistleblowers should be treated, with respect,” said Rep. Speier. “Their cases should be handled appropriately and the perpetrator should be punished.”
The VA’s Office of Resolution Management is currently investigating the complaints of two employees who talked to us. But, as we’ve previously reported, the process can take years.