U.S. House Investigates Local Lab

Whistleblower Robert Van Boven has finally gotten some attention in high places

If nothing else, Dr. Robert Van Boven's journey with the U.S. Department of Veter­ans Affairs proves that persistence pays off. His yearlong fight with the VA reached a milestone last week when, on May 21, a team from the U.S. House of Representatives landed in Texas. The group of staffers from the House Veterans' Affairs Committee spent all day in a meeting in Temple with VA officials.

Last fall, Van Boven began hammering the committee to look into his allegations of fraud, waste, and mismanagement at the Central Texas Veterans Health Care System's Brain Imaging and Recovery Lab in Austin. In October, he flew to Washington and spent two days visiting the offices of legislators who sit on the House and Senate VA committees – 34 in all. Since then, he's sent countless follow-up e-mails. "I got a lot of: 'Oh, thank you. This is very important, and we'll get back to you,'" Van Boven says. "With rare exception, I never heard back from anyone." Then, earlier this month, he finally got the response he sought. In a May 1 e-mail, retired Lt. Col. Martin L. Herbert, majority staff director for the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, wrote: "Dr. Van Boven, I've decided to send a team to investigate first hand your allegations. ... Look­ing into serious allegations is very important to my Subcommittee. Rest assured we will fairly and objectively assess the situation."

The meeting's agenda called for, among other things, a discussion of the BIRL's history and accomplishments; a review of the research approval process and complaint-handling procedures of the VA Heart of Texas Health Care Network (or VISN 17), the organization that oversees the Central Texas system; and interviews with three BIRL staff members identified as having worked with Van Boven, who was not allowed to attend the meeting. Neither subcommittee staff nor VA officials would discuss any outcome of the meeting.

Van Boven was hired in 2007 to head up the BIRL but was fired in January. He believes he was canned because he made disclosures of wrongdoing at the Central Texas system to VA officials in Washington. He says about $2 million worth of taxpayer money was wasted on worthless research. The VA refused to end the research, he says, and then tried to shut him up about it.

The VA won't disclose its official reason for the termination, citing privacy issues, but documents provided by Van Boven list as reasons a number of questionable charges, including using profanity at work, intimidating subordinates, and insubordination for organizing a fun run – against his bosses' wishes – to raise money for traumatic brain injury research. He rejects all the allegations.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Robert Van Boven, Central Texas Veterans Health Care System, House Veterans Affairs Committee, Heart of Texas Health Care Network

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