She is a whistle-blower with a passion for the truth

Kristen Ruell, at her Port Richmond home, says unrealistic performance goals leading to corner-cutting or sloppy work to make deadlines explain problems at a local VA center.
Kristen Ruell, at her Port Richmond home, says unrealistic performance goals leading to corner-cutting or sloppy work to make deadlines explain problems at a local VA center. (DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 21, 2014

Her father's polygraph machine drew her eye each time she passed her parents' bedroom, a sleek silver briefcase she knew could read her thoughts.

"He would always say to us, 'I hope you're telling me the truth,' " Kristen Ruell said. " 'Because you know I can check.' "

It was a playful threat.

But it seems to have served its purpose.

Ruell, a 39-year-old from Philadelphia, became a national voice in the call for accountability at the Department of Veterans Affairs last week when she spoke before Congress about mismanagement at the Germantown VA center where she works.

The impact locally was swift - its depth still undetermined - as a team of investigators continues to review Ruell's accusation that thousands of claims had been doctored at the VA office to diminish the benefits backlog.

She is not the first employee to make such assertions. Whistle-blowers over the last few months from VA hospitals and benefits centers sparked a scandal over delays facing the nation's veterans.

But Ruell - who has made transforming the VA a mission and offered free legal help to dozens of employees in their personal fights with the agency - stands apart.

Because she's one of a handful making bold claims with her name in the open.

She knows the decision will follow her if she ever leaves the job she's held for seven years.

"I don't Google myself," Ruell said last week in her Port Richmond home, as she talked at a quick clip despite an exhaustion that never seems to subside. "Because it scares me."

Force the issue

In college, when a property manager refused to rent an apartment to Ruell and her boyfriend because he was black, she didn't find another place.

She found a number for the building's owner.

The property manager got fired.

They got the apartment.

Ruell said she had always had a strong belief in equality - and a will to force the issue herself.

Her mother, Carol Ruell, said her daughter's curiosity came early, and while her three siblings were content watching cartoons at their home near Harrisburg, a 9-year-old Ruell would lobby for the news.

"She always wanted to know why things happened," her mother said. "The other kids didn't seem to care. But she did."

Ruell said her sense of social justice drove her to law school at Widener University. After graduation, she went on to clerk for Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Sandra Schulz Newman, then to a law firm in West Chester.

She was fine with the job but never took the bar exam and hated billing clients for her time, knowing there were others who couldn't pay an attorney.

After a few years, she left law to run a hotel in Wildwood Crest, N.J. She met her boyfriend, and they had their now 8-year-old son, Tyler.

In 2007 a friend told her there were jobs open at the Philadelphia Veterans Affairs Regional Office, a facility that manages benefits for Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. She decided it was time to leave beach life, and the family moved to the city.

At the VA, where she started processing claims and now works as a quality review specialist, she said she noticed problems almost immediately.

Most issues, she said, stem from the same thing: unrealistic performance goals leading to corner-cutting or sloppy work to make deadlines. In the end she thinks that leads to poor service for veterans because rushed employees aren't applying benefits laws consistently.

The inequality in the system bothered her.

In 2012, it led her to become a whistle-blower for the first time.

Nothing happened

For months she had seen the double payments.

When a veteran who mistakenly had two records in the system applied for a benefits increase, the computer paid the entire benefit, not just the extra, going back to the first time they received a check.

One case resulted in a veteran being paid $21,000 when he should have received $1,600, she said.

She complained, but the message never seemed to make it up the chain of command. So she jumped the chain and wrote to the Department of Justice, the VA Office of Inspector General, VA officials, and members of Congress.

Nothing happened.

"Then I got mad. So I got in contact with the New York Times," she said.

The story led to an investigation by the inspector general, a rewarding result but one that, according to a recent VA report, hasn't fixed the problem.

After a few months, she said, the media coverage died down, and the pressure to solve the issue faded with it.

Ruell said the article also, for a period, led to her being ostracized at work when some employees were concerned to be associated with her.

Others, though, saw her advocacy and turned to her for advice on their problems with the VA.

Paul Sarkissian, a 49-year-old from Philadelphia who has worked for the VA for 24 years, said he was demoted with a pay cut and given a two-week suspension when he sent an e-mail that included inappropriate language and criticized management to his team.

"You think she's so carefree," he said of Ruell, who helped him file an Equal Employment Opportunity complaint against the VA. "But she is just brilliant. We started discussing my case, and she is like, This is the action I think you should take."

Ruell said she's given legal assistance - at no charge, the way she always wanted - to about two dozen people, including a few who reached out from other offices.

She spends hours on research as her son falls asleep beside her on the couch at night.

Each case is rewarding, but she knows they've taken over her life.

When she does make it to bed, the pressure to help her clients keeps her awake. Hobbies she once loved are no longer important. And Ruell - a woman who has made more than a dozen trips to Las Vegas, drawn by the blackjack and the energy of a place that revolves around detachment - now doesn't see the point in watching a movie.

It's fiction.

She would rather use that time "to help a real person," she said.

"They are counting on me to help them. And I can't fix the broken system," she said last week, her eyes focused but wilted with exhaustion.

For Ruell's mother, the pride over her daughter's work doesn't stop her from worrying or wondering when it will be over.

"We just really need the old Kristen back a little bit more," she said.

Ruell feels the same way sometimes and thinks about leaving the VA if this new spotlight dies the same way it did after the New York Times article.

Then she thinks about the people who stop by her desk or send e-mails seeking her advice.

She thinks about what would show up on an online search of her name and wonders where she would go.

"No one wants to hire a whistle-blower," she said. "Sometimes I think, 'What have I done?' "

Would not leave

If she searched her name today, Ruell would find stories from national news outlets, a stream of pictures, a video of her last week in Washington.

As that hearing of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs stretched past midnight, and drowsy lawmakers stifled yawns or let their heads dip until their turn to question the VA officials, Ruell sat upright in the front row.

Brow furrowed, her attentiveness was clear in an occasional nod or eye-roll.

The other whistle-blowers who had testified beside her had left.

Ruell wasn't going to miss a moment of it.


Blowing The Whistle

Here are some well-known American whistle-blowers:

Edward Snowden: The former contractor for the National Security Agency made public classified NSA documents in 2013 that exposed secret worldwide surveillance programs.

Bradley Manning: The former Army intelligence analyst leaked controversial government documents related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2010.

Mark Felt: Known as Deep Throat, the FBI official contributed to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974 by exposing the government's role in the Watergate break-in scandal.

Daniel Ellsberg: The former State Department worker leaked the Pentagon Papers in 1971 that secretly detailed how the United States got involved in the Vietnam War.

Karen Silkwood: A worker at a Kerr-McGee nuclear power plant in Oklahoma, she died mysteriously in a 1974 car accident while trying to expose alleged health and safety violations at the plant.

Frank Serpico: The former New York City policeman went public with information about corruption in the department in the 1960s and '70s.


tnadolny@phillynews.com

610-313-8205 @TriciaNadolny

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