AURORA, Colo. — Two veterans affairs employees say leadership has created a stressful, exhausting and sometimes hostile work environment at Rocky Mountain Regional VA Media Center.
They say they've had enough, and they're not alone.
Garland Dotson never thought he would be a whistleblower.
"I served 22 years active duty service in the Air Force with seven deployments," said Dotson, who is now an occupational safety specialist covering Veterans Affairs facilities across the state. "At least on my deployments, I knew what I was dealing with."
Dotson points to a specific example that occurred earlier this year. Records show a VA section chief approached him and "made a monkey-like motion" with her arms and torso, telling him "you look like a monkey."
The incident was caught on a surveillance camera, and there was a witness.
"Unless you're living underneath a rock, you would know that is discriminatory. We go through annual training for discrimination, hostile work environment," Dotson said. "Honestly, she should have been terminated, but unfortunately, if they like you, they love you. They will protect you."
Dotson filed a complaint about the incident. Records show a VA investigation found the claim of harassment was "substantiated," but Dotson said the employee kept her job.
"It's a toxic work environment," said Ron Mitcham, a former VA safety specialist who resigned three weeks ago.
He and Dotson both say the issues go much deeper than that incident.
"It's a 'do as I say, not as I do' environment," Mitcham said.
At the start of the pandemic, the safety department reported a VA employee's COVID-related death to OSHA, and VA leadership retaliated by demoting the entire department from an independent section to under facilities management, according to Mitcham.
Since then, he and Dotson said there has been a mass exodus from the safety department and the VA in general. "When I was there, there was an average of five to seven people per day leaving. Some of the stuff they're doing... If they get somebody injured, it could be a lawsuit."
The VA reports that 86 employees have left since October 2020.
A spokesperson provided the following statement to Contact7:
All allegations of misconduct are investigated and when inappropriate activity or performance is substantiated it is dealt with promptly and appropriately. VA Eastern Colorado Health Care System is building a culture deeply rooted in safety, accountability and High Reliability principles. It is the belief of our leadership team that individuals should feel safe coming forward with their concerns, while also holding employees accountable when appropriate. Our workforce is built on diversity and inclusion and we are proud to celebrate each other, our differences and our successes.
Below you will find our gains and losses from October 2020 to present.
New to VA: 286 new hires
From other VA: 124 transfers into ECH from other VA
Internal: 213 Promotions or reassignments
Total: 623 Gains to ECH VA
Left VA: 35 left ECH (resignation, transfer to other federal)
Transferred to another VA: 64
Allegations of this nature are taken extremely serious. Our leadership team does not tolerate hostility, retaliation or toxicity within this organization. Should an employee have a concern they are encouraged to bring them up to HR, EEO or leadership.
We are proud to be an employer of choice. Our mission is critical and none of it would be possible without our incredible workforce.
Dotson said he has filed complaints and gone all the way to the Secretary of the VA to try to sound the alarm.
"And this is the only way to bring attention about it because if you try to talk to them, they’ll ignore you," Dotson said. "They'll deny your knowledge, and they'll bury it."
Editor's note: Denver7 seeks out audience tips and feedback to help people in need, resolve problems and hold the powerful accountable. If you know of a community need our call center could address, or have a story idea for our investigative team to pursue, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (720) 462-7777. Find more Contact Denver7 stories here.