Behind the scenes: What it took to do our investigation into the VA medical inspector
The San Diego VA Medical Center in La Jolla is shown on Sept., 26, 2019. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Behind the scenes: What it took to do our investigation into the VA medical inspector

I can thank jury duty for giving me the time (and boredom) to pursue my most recent investigation.

I was sitting in the San Diego County courthouse, waiting to be called for jury selection. I couldn’t make phone calls or do interviews, but being the kind of journalist who can’t just idle around, I wanted to use that time to work on my stories. After I made it through my backlog of emails, I realized this could be my opportunity to answer a question I’d been wondering about for a while.

My colleague Brad Racino and I have spent nine months reporting on dangerous human research. The first story we pursued was about two whistleblowers at the San Diego VA who alleged that an unethical liver study was performed on ill veterans. Their accusations were finally reviewed by the VA Office of the Medical Inspector in 2017, but its investigation was incomplete and was labeled “unreasonable” by a separate government agency called the Office of Special Counsel.

And I had just learned that because of all this, the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs was going to hold a hearing on the medical inspector’s office — an entity with oversight of the whole VA healthcare system, which serves 9 million veterans.

Brad and I had heard anecdotes of other poor investigations by the VA’s medical inspector, but we didn’t know how widespread the problem was. We thought finding some way to quantify the quality of the OMI’s investigations would provide context in the story and ultimately help the congressional committee with its hearing.

Getting the answer required a lot of manual labor. And patience.

I knew the best way to figure this out was to use information from the Office of Special Counsel, which reviews whistleblower investigations in the executive branch and decides whether they’re “reasonable” or not. The OMI’s investigations usually aren’t public, but they are when the special counsel gets involved. This was our window into the medical inspector’s operations.

So I sat in the courthouse painstakingly going through the special counsel’s website, reading reports from each of the almost 400 cases they’ve reviewed in the past decade — not only from the Department of Veterans Affairs, but also from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Homeland Security and many other three-initial agencies in the government’s seemingly endless bureaucracy.

I continued my work when I was let out of jury duty and for most of the next week. I built my own dataset listing which federal agency conducted the whistleblower investigation, where the allegations took place, what the agency’s findings were and whether the special counsel found the investigation “reasonable.”

The dataset showed that 16% of the medical inspector’s investigations have been labeled “unreasonable” by the special counsel’s office — much higher than the government-wide average. That seemed pretty striking, but I wanted to talk to experts on whistleblower investigations to hear their perspective.

Whistleblower database

Click here to search the inewsource database of federal whistleblower complaints within the executive branch.

My hunch was right. In some of the most compelling words I’ve heard spoken so far in my journalism career, expert Tom Devine told me the medical inspector’s poor investigations are “extra impressive” because the special counsel’s office only finds a report unreasonable if the investigation was “an insult to the intelligence.”

Our work didn’t end there. To be sure I entered everything into my dataset correctly, I went through all the documents again and fact checked the whole thing. Intern Natallie Rocha reviewed the dataset a third time, fact checking each piece of information I had included. Any discrepancies or complicated cases were reviewed by Managing Editor Laura Wingard. And the data analysis I used in the final story was reviewed by Brandon Quester, director of data and visuals.

I knew my analysis had never been done before and it provided an original look into the operations of a small but powerful entity in the VA. I hoped my work could help inform government policy, so I sent my methodology and findings to all the federal agencies involved and gave them a chance to review and comment on my work.

After sending multiple requests to the VA for comment, spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci wrote me a blunt email, saying my analysis was “misleading and ignores key information.” She even sent me her own data analysis, but she didn’t explain how she got those numbers. I replied with a long email (she never provided her phone number) carefully detailing my analysis and asking her to explain her concerns. She never replied. We felt confident enough in our work to keep moving forward.

Zachary Kurz, spokesman for the special counsel’s office, thanked me for the detailed numbers. His office hadn’t conducted any analysis like this before, even though they had all the materials needed to do it. He said his office does not dispute inewsource’s findings and plans to independently verify the statistics.

The breaking news we reported on Tuesday was that Congress will hold a hearing, but the deep data analysis we did provided the context to make the story much more meaningful. I’m grateful to work in a newsroom that gives me the time and resources to pursue projects like this one.

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About Jill Castellano:

Jill Castellano
Jill Castellano is an investigative data reporter for inewsource. To contact her with tips, suggestions or corrections, please email jillcastellano [at] inewsource [dot] org.