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Friday, April 12, 2024

Biden VA nominee in hot seat over alleged 'failure to protect' veterans' private information

Two government watchdog groups are calling for senators to thoroughly vet President Biden’s pick for the number two spot at the Department of Veterans Affairs in part because she had authority over a system that left veterans’ personal information vulnerable, causing one federal investigative agency to conclude there was a “substantial likelihood of wrongdoing.”

Tanya Bradsher, the chief of staff to VA Secretary Denis McDonough is Biden’s nominee to be deputy secretary. She has had authority over the VA’s Integrated Enterprise Workflow Solution, also known as the VIEWS system. 

In August, the Office of Special Counsel asked the department to complete the investigation of VIEWS within 60 days. Now, almost a year later, the VA still has no answers. 

“Yet under Secretary McDonough and Tanya Bradsher’s leadership, the VA has requested extensions every 60 days since then, repeatedly punting its obligations to investigate and report to OSC on these serious whistleblower disclosures,” says a letter sent late Friday from Tristan Leavitt, president of Empower Oversight and Jacqueline Garrick, founder of Whistleblowers of America. 

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, has already insisted on answers about Bradsher. Earlier this year, Grassley — not a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee — delayed the confirmation of a different Biden VA nominee.

“The VIEWS system is under the authority of Chief of Staff Tanya Bradsher’s office. Based on reports that are supported by documents in my possession, a VA certified fraud examiner and certified auditing professional notified Ms. Bradsher’s office last year that personal identifiable information (PII), protected health information (PHI), and whistleblower information was widely accessible across VA to the thousands of VA employees with access to VIEWS, regardless of their need to know,” Grassley says in a June 2 letter to McDonough. 


During her May 31 confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, she got no questions about the VIEWS system, according to the two watchdog groups. However, she did reference electronic health records.

“I will ensure that we continue to build an electronic health record system that improves care for Veterans — and that we only deploy it when fully ready,” Bradsher said during her opening statement at the confirmation hearing. 

She later said during the hearing, “The deputy secretary is ultimately responsible for the electronic healthcare record program, and if confirmed, that responsibility… will fall fully on my shoulders.”

The letter from the watchdog groups notes that two days before the Senate confirmation hearing, Peter C. Rizzo, a certified fraud examiner, and former VA program manager, signed a statement about problems with the VIEWS system and complained about “unconscionable mishandling” of the data in the system. 

“In her current capacity as VA Chief of Staff, Ms. Bradsher is responsible for VIEWS. Ms. Bradsher is also fully aware of VIEWS’ deficiencies and its ongoing misuse by VA employees,” Rizzo says in the statement. “I know this because on July 13, 2022, I reported these issues directly to Ms. Bradsher’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Maureen Elias, both by video chat and by email. That day, Ms. Elias gave me her word that she would immediately brief Ms. Bradsher on my concerns about VIEWS.” 

The statement says that “thousands of authorized VIEWS users are able to access the system without logging in ever again after their initial VIEWS log-in.” He also states, “VA leadership has long known of VIEWS’ security vulnerabilities, and yet not one of them—Ms. Bradsher included—has demonstrated the courage and will to take necessary corrective action.”

WASHINGTON, D.C. – APRIL 22, 2018: A metal plaque on the facade of the Department of Veterans Affairs building in Washington, D.C., features a quotation by Abraham Lincoln. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
(Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

On Aug. 2, 2022, the OSC, an independent agency that investigates whistleblower disclosures and complaints, informed Rizzo of its referral. 

“Disclosures referred to the agency for investigation and a report must include information sufficient for OSC to determine whether there is a substantial likelihood of wrongdoing,” the OSC letter to Rizzo says. “After reviewing the information submitted, we have requested that the Secretary conduct an investigation into these allegations and report back to OSC… We have provided the Secretary 60 days to conduct the investigation and submit the report to OSC. However, you should be aware that these investigations usually take longer, and agencies frequently request and receive extensions of the due date.” 

VIEWS wasn’t the only matter the watchdogs raised in their letter Friday. The letter also includes exhibits the groups obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that showed the chief of staff was on numerous emails regarding Grassley’s concerns about matters such as conflicts of interest and whistleblower retaliation in the VA.

“We are disappointed that the committee has thus far shown no interest in thoroughly vetting the nominee’s record despite the serious issues raised by these whistleblowers on her watch,” the letter says. “The committee has a duty to scrutinize nominees to senior leadership positions like this and to inform fellow Senators about facts relevant to the exercise of their independent vote and participation in the constitutional advice and consent function.”

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