Blowing the Whistle on Unethical Practices – Paula Pedene, APR, Fellow PRSA

Paula Pedene is an ethics inspiration to me. She is a service-disabled veteran, was a public affairs officer in the Navy and works at the VA. She was PRSA’s PR professional of the year in 2015. She is a guidepost against which many PR professionals should measure their ethical standards and took at stand against unethical practices as a whistleblower.

This Ethical Voices interview will look at:

Please tell us a little bit more about yourself, your job and your career:

I’m a U.S. Navy veteran. I was looking at other avenues for college and was fortunate enough to get into the Navy. I had a heck of a wonderful time in there. I enlisted for eight and a half years, and then got out and actually worked on the Hill, thanks to the Navy training, as a political reporter in Washington, D.C. Then, when Desert Storm came back up, I felt compelled to rejoin, so I rejoined the Reserves, and then did another three-year stint on that. After I got out, the TV show that I was working on had lost its funding, and that very next week, the VA had an opening for public affairs officer. I looked at the job, and I was like, “Gosh, I could do all of this” And here I am, more than 25 years later, still with the Department of Veterans Affairs, and really making the most of serving our nation’s veterans.

What is the most difficult ethical challenge you confronted at work?

I have the unfortunate, and sometimes fortunate, dubious distinction of being a whistleblower. I was backed up against a wall and had a need to share the truth, no matter how hard it was for people to accept.

We had a situation at the Phoenix VA where I was a public affairs officer. I had been there for 20 years. We were a top-performing hospital but we had some leadership changes and we went from the “servant leader” to “what’s in it for me only” leadership, and then we went from that to unethical leaders, to actually gaming the system.

I was put into a situation where I worked with another physician, Dr. Sam Foote, to expose a leader that was really hurting our facility. Fortunately, we were able to share that internally with the Office of the Inspector General, and with our senior leaders above him. Because they had heard some of the same rumblings, and knew that something was up in Phoenix. We were able to remove him and the associate director quietly. They were left with dignity, we were left with dignity, and we went about the business of rebuilding.

Little did we know that the new leadership coming in would be worse. Except this time, those leaders knew that Dr. Foote and I had gotten rid of the former director. We had targets on our back. They figured out ways to ping on him, to ping on me, and eventually remove me from my long-standing public affairs job that I had held for 20 years for a minor infraction.

I was banished to the basement for reporting violations from senior leadership. They took me out of my job, they took away my work phone, they took away my BlackBerry, they took away my VA email that I had had since 1991.

It was during this time that we found out about the worst part, which had yet to be revealed, which was the patient waits and delays, and the gaming of the system. Had I not been banished to the library, I wouldn’t have heard about the additional waits and delays. I wouldn’t have been able to see how they were setting up patient appointments and right before they’d hit the “submit” button to put it into the electronic system, they would hit “print”. They would print the piece of paper, and then they would exit out of the computer system, and the trace of the appointment would disappear.

They had an illegal paper list supplementing the electronic wait list, and never the two shall meet. And the paper list kept growing, and growing, and growing. Instead of having all of these people in all of the different clinics throughout the hospital working on getting those patients in, they were relegated to giving the paper to one person who was trying to make these hundreds of phone calls every single day, and was nearly losing her mind in the process.

When we saw that, and found out what they were truly doing, that’s when Dr. Foote and I just said, “We can’t have it.” And we did what we did before, which was reporting it internally, thinking the leadership would listen. But this time, our efforts were falling on deaf ears, because the leadership that we were now complaining against had support from their senior leaders. They thought that we were just being complainers again. It actually became a very difficult challenge.

We worked on exposing it for a year before it finally got to the right people, and we were able to highlight what was truly happening.

 

How difficult was it for you to step up?

The last thing you want to do is air dirty laundry in public. You should try to work through the internal channels.

At first, I turned Sam down. I told him “Sam, I’m legally blind. This guy doesn’t like me, but I’ve got a mortgage. I’ve got kids that are in high school. I’m saving for college for them. I’m the primary provider for my family. I don’t know that I can help you.”

But I thought about it and if I didn’t stand up, the people who are unethical would continue and just get worse.

Sam called me again. He said, “Paula, I want to know if I can count on you.”

And I said, “Absolutely.” You have to work for the greater good.


When you took the ethical stand, how did you protect yourself?

If you have evidence on your work computers, you want to be sure to print it out and send it home. You want to have a backup copy and log of activities somewhere, so that if the going gets tough, you can say, “Oh, no. I reported it here. Here’s what I did, here’s when I did it, and here’s the evidence file,” or the timeline of it. And thank God I had done that, because when they took away my email, they took away my phone, they took away my office, I had no access to anything in there. Nothing. And I had paper copies that I had printed and took with me home, that were legal for me to provide as an evidence file in reporting it to members of Congress, and to the Office of the Medical Inspector, and the Office of the Inspector General.

I can’t tell you how good the Postal Service is, because it’s secure documentation. You can mail something to the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Oversights and Investigations, and it gets to them. You’re not transmitting from work email, or personal email so you aren’t violating policy.

 

What was the reaction when you first tried bringing this to light?

A lot of people were in denial, and then they came to acceptance. At the OIG, I think they knew that it was a bigger issue than just Phoenix, and they were afraid Pandora’s box would open. I do know that the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Secretary Shinseki, believed in us. When the evidence finally came forward, and the people involved were asked by the secretary to come clean and make this easy for everyone, they threw away that opportunity and said, “Let’s see how smart the OIG is.”

 

What would you have done differently?

Two things:  I wish I had listened to advice from people who had seen this happen and told me it would take a long time and be prepared for depression. And number two, I wish I would have had more faith during the process.

 

What is the best piece of ethics advice you were given?

To always tell the truth. The beauty of the truth is you never have to remember where you told what, because it’s consistent. When you tell a lie, you have to remember what lie it was, when you told it, who you told it to, and you have to continue to line it up. And I saw that happening in front of my eyes. These people couldn’t remember who they told what lie to. So, it was easy for us to come in with the truth, and just say, “Here’s our true north, and here is the truth, and it shall set you free.”

 

What key ethical challenges do you see facing communications professionals in the future?

I believe that we are seeing a rise of unethical behavior from leaders in business. We need to get back to our word meaning something. I would just prepare PR counselors to make sure that you have that true north compass represented, you are advising accordingly, you are partnering with ethical leadership, and take the ethical stand if you need to.

 

If you would like to listen to the full interview, you can find it on the Ethical Voices podcast, where Paula shares even more about the story, her challenges and advice for practitioners

 

 

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Mark McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA

Mark W. McClennan, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a senior strategic communications professional. He has more than 20 years of tech and fintech agency experience, served as the 2016 National Chair of PRSA. drove the creation of the PRSA Ethics App and is the host of EthicalVoices.com
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