A disabled Army veteran who was fired from the Department of Veterans Affairs after he sought help from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski with his own benefits claim was back at work Tuesday.
The Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates allegations of retaliation against whistleblowers, said Tuesday it believed the VA broke the law when it fired Bradie Frink in 2013.
Frink, then a time and leave clerk in the Baltimore office of the VA's Benefits Administration, had contacted Mikulski's office after his paperwork went missing.
"The constitutional right to petition Congress must be guaranteed for all Americans," Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner said in a statement. "Federal agencies cannot deny their employees this right even if it leads to scrutiny of their operations."
Rosangelie Toledo, a spokeswoman for the Baltimore office, said the department has been working closely with the special counsel's office and welcomed its work on Frink's case.
"Intimidation or retaliation — not just against whistleblowers — but against any employee who raises a hand to identify a problem, make a suggestion or report what may be a violation in law, policy or VA's core values — is absolutely unacceptable," she said.
Frink, 46, called his firing "traumatic."
"It created some very hard financial situations for me," he said.
The Baltimore office of the Veterans Benefits Administration has been plagued in recent years by problems with record keeping. An inspector general found in 2014 that some veterans had faced delays in receiving as much as $25,000. One employee carted papers from her home in a suitcase, inspectors said, and one had some 8,000 documents stashed in his office.
The VA has replaced the office's leadership in an effort to address the problems.
Frink served 11 years in the Army before a medical discharge in 2004. He said he was injured during a training exercise in hand-to-hand combat.
His problems began when he was hired by the VA in February 2013, investigators for the special counsel wrote in a 19-page report on his case.
Frink had filed a benefits claim seeking years of back payments. Now the claim had to be transferred to another office so it would be handled impartially. But officials could not find the paperwork.
"This caused Frink serious concern since the VA could not begin work on his claim until his folder was transferred to another facility," investigators wrote. "And even after it was finally transferred, he might still face a long wait for the retroactive payments to be processed and distributed."
Frink sought help from his supervisor, whose name is redacted in the report, and from the independent organization Disabled American Veterans.
In June 2013, Frink sent Mikulski a letter asking for her help. The Baltimore Sun had reported that the Baltimore office was the worst-performing in the country, with high error rates and long wait times for decisions, and Mikulski was demanding improvement.
Frink was fired in July. Officials said in a letter that he had misused his identity badge, failed to follow instructions from his bosses, taken time off improperly, and threatened a colleague.
Frink, who enlisted in the Army 1993 and played piano in its jazz band, said he had documented his conversations with his supervisors, which gave him confidence when he took his case to the Office of Special Counsel.
"Everything was trailed in black and white," he said. "I know when I looked at the termination there was no credibility to it."
The special counsel's office concluded that the VA fired him because he had sought Mikulski's help and that managers who were interviewed by investigators provided testimony that was "inconsistent and lacked candor."
The investigators recommended disciplinary action against two supervisors in the VA office, but did not name them or describe the proposed sanctions.
The report was only the second of its kind released by the Office of Special Counsel, which hopes it will shine a light on retaliation faced by federal employees who expose problems in government.
Typically, federal agencies reach an agreement with the special counsel before a formal report is drafted, spokesman Nick Schwellenbach said.
VA officials say the Baltimore office has cut the backlog of cases and sped the time in which decisions are made.
After his first day back, Frink said the change was clear. Now a financial accounts technician, he said new systems are working well and morale seems greatly buoyed.
And as for his paperwork? The missing file was eventually found under a desk in the Baltimore office, Frink said, and his claim was sorted out this year.