24 Veterans Affairs police officers sue management over covert surveillance

Reuters / Marcos Brindicci
More than 20 police officers have filed a lawsuit claiming that management of the Veterans Affairs medical center spied on them in their break rooms through video cameras and microphones.

The lawsuit, filed by 24 Veterans Affairs police officers, claimed they discovered the bugging when a colleague alerted them that their chief of police “may be monitoring their activities,” on January 19, 2014.

Five days later a group of officers found a camera with a microphone mounted on a support bracket hidden behind CCTV monitors. Indicator lights on the device were covered up in black tape. When officers covered up the microphone to discuss their find, the chief of police, Jerry Brown, entered the control room demanding to know what the officers were doing, and ordered them to draft statements about what was happening, according to the complaint.

Officers subsequently found another hidden camera and microphone in a break room in March, 2014. Footage and audio recordings from this camera were used by the police chief to make disciplinary charges against one of the plaintiff’s in the suit, Luis Rodriguez-Soto, which included a two-week suspension without pay, according to the complaint.

In January 2015, a further camera and microphone were discovered in the Watch Commanders office, which is used by male and female officers as a changing room. The Secretary of the US Dept. of Veterans Affairs, Robert McDonald, is named in the complaint as liable for the police chief’s spying, and for failing to investigate claims about the wiretapping when police officers first brought the problem to his attention on January 29, 2014.

Police Chief Brown is accused of conspiring with Brain Hawkins, the medical center director, to install the surveillance cameras without a warrant, in various locations and private areas of the Dept. of Veterans Affairs Medical Facility from October 2013, according to the complaint.

Picture of camera provided by Attorney Ken Gauvey, representing D.C. VA Medical Center police officers.

The statement further alleges that video and audio feeds were delivered on “a real-time basis to Brown’s office” where they were recorded. The complaint adds that Brown violated the constitutional rights of employees when he engaged in unlawful searches and seizures by installing microphones and cameras. The suit also charges Johnson Controls Corporation for installing the cameras and microphones.

Employees “had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the break rooms, changing rooms and offices were the audio and recording devices were installed,” but employees “were deprived of these options to safeguard [their] privacy,” said the complaint.

The US Department of Veterans Affairs released the following statement to NBC: "VA remains vigilant in maintaining a workplace environment that protects our employees. However, we cannot not comment on this case due to pending litigation."

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As far as the officers know the cameras and microphones remain in use. The class action lawsuit, which could potentially involve more than 100 employees, was filed in a federal district court, in Washington, DC on Monday.

Attorney Ken Gauvey, who is representing the police officers told NBC, "As a result of some disciplinary matters, we strongly believe there are other cameras as conversations in other rooms have been used to discipline the officers."

The plaintiffs are seeking damages of at least $10,000 for each named plaintiff plus legal fees.

The Washington D.C. VA Medical Center employs about 2,000 workers and volunteers. More than 106,000 veterans are enrolled to seek care at the facility.