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Feds move forward on RI ‘whistleblower’s’ claim of harassment, hostility

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WARWICK, R.I. (WPRI) — A claim that harassment caused a hostile work environment in a Warwick combat veteran counseling office will be investigated further by federal authorities, the Target 12 Investigators have learned.

Ted Blickwedel, who was a counselor at the Warwick Veterans Affairs (VA) Vet Center for nine years, filed a complaint in June about several issues, including claims of unreasonable performance standards, unfair punishment and false accusations.  

VA Readjustment Counseling Service (RCS) Vet Centers counsel combat veterans across the country, with three locations in Southern New England.

The letter to Blickwedel from the VA Office of Resolution Management states his claims, “if proven true, could create a hostile work environment.”

“We have determined that your complaint passes the severe and pervasive requirement for further processing,” the letter said.

Blickwedel, a Marine who’s dealt with personal bouts with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), called the development “an important next step.”

“It’s vindication not only for the issues I raised, but for the retaliation I experienced from the RCS leadership,” he said.

VA Public Information Officer Randal Noller said “the decision to accept the claim is not verification or corroboration of the claim.”

“It simply means that VA’s Office of Resolution Management has agreed to investigate, which it does for almost every claim it receives, only rejecting claims that have procedural errors,” Noller said. “Accepted claims are investigated within 180 calendar days of filing.” 

Blickwedel said he retired about three years early following claims his supervisor harassed him by turning off his email access after he raised concerns last year about a 2016 policy change that mandated “30 visits” a week per Vet Center counselor.

Blickwedel said his email access was blocked a short time after he sent a survey to the VA’s 1,300 Vet Center counselors, that asked questions about the session counts and productivity standards.

While only a small percentage was able to reply before his email went dark, 85 percent who answered said the “visit count mandate” has adversely impacted the quality of care to veterans.

VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour has not responded to a request for comment on the decision to further investigate Blickwedel’s complaint.

In April, he disagreed with the claim the weekly RCS session requirement put too much pressure on the counselors, saying they “manage their own schedules in consultation with their direct supervisor.” 

“And if a client needs extended services,” Cashour said at the time, “staff have the flexibility to be able to provide that.”

Blickwedel is hopeful investigators will further substantiate his claims to put pressure on “the leadership of RCS.”

“So, they’re compelled to have systemic change so that counselors are properly taken care of, aren’t burning out and the quality of service for veterans is not being negatively impacted,” Blickwedel said. “If the counselors are burning out, they’re not going to be able to perform effectively and that’s going to impact quality of service.”

Blickwedel’s Whistle-Blower Protection Act complaint was dismissed on grounds his claim did not result in official personnel action being taken against him. 

Blickwedel said the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) decided not to investigate the complaint he filed with that agency. 

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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