House vets chairman: VA impeding congressional oversight

AP News
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Posted: Mar 16, 2015 10:20 PM
House vets chairman: VA impeding congressional oversight

WASHINGTON (AP) — The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee on Monday accused the inspector general and other officials at the Department of Veterans Affairs of withholding reports from his panel, despite pledges to be transparent.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said the VA's actions were impeding the ability of Congress to oversee a department rocked by a scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking medical care and falsified records covering up delays.

At a hearing Monday night, Miller said more than 100 requests for information from the VA remain outstanding, including 63 that are months past due. VA officials have challenged the need for some of the information he has requested, Miller said, and withheld others based on "unfounded fears" that the information might be publicly released.

Miller said he won't tolerate anyone interfering with a congressional investigation.

"Let there be no mistake or misunderstanding: When this committee requests documents, I expect production to be timely, complete and accurate," Miller said.

While he is willing to work with VA Secretary Robert McDonald and other officials to implement needed reforms, Miller said he is not willing to let McDonald or anyone else "dictate how the committee conducts oversight or performs investigations."

Leigh Bradley, the VA's general counsel, said the agency is committed to accommodating congressional requests "as fully and quickly" as possible.

"I cannot overstate how deeply we are committed to providing you responsive and timely information," she told Miller.

Miller said he was especially disappointed that the VA's Office of Inspector General has withheld crucial information from the committee, including a report on excessive wait times at the Phoenix VA hospital, the epicenter of the scandal that erupted last year.

The inspector general's office also withheld for nearly a year a report on over-medication problems at a VA hospital in Tomah, Wis., Miller and other lawmakers said. The Tomah facility was dubbed "Candy Land" by some veterans for its rampant practice of prescribing opiates and other pain killers.

Miller said Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin has ignored laws mandating that inspectors general keep Congress currently and fully informed. Instead, he has "taken the stilted position that other than a semi-annual report," any other reports to Congress are on a voluntary basis to be decided at the IG's discretion, Miller said.

Miller called that mistaken.

"If VA truly wants to be transparent and open, one of the first things it needs to do is stop impeding the committee's oversight investigations," he said.

Maureen Regan, counselor to the inspector general, said the IG's office has complied with all legal requirements for reporting to Congress and responding to congressional requests.

In the past six years, the IG's office has issued more than 1,700 reports, provided testimony at 67 congressional hearings, conducted 400 briefings to members of Congress and staff, and responded "on a daily basis" to telephone calls and emails from the committee and its staff, Regan said.

Regan also defended the IG's actions in a recent report that found misconduct by former VA procurement officer Iris Cooper, who is now a top contracting official with the Treasury Department. The report found that while at the VA, Cooper improperly steered $15 million in uncompetitive contracts to a friend's company. The report also accused her of a "lack of candor" with the IG's office.

The VA inspector's report sparked a rare and sharp rebuke from the IG's counterpart at Treasury, who said the allegations against Cooper were unsupported and based on a complaint by a VA supervisor that Cooper had complained about for creating a hostile work environment.

Eric Thorson, the Treasury IG, said his review found that while Cooper knew two officers of the company that received the contract, she did not award the contract nor did she improperly influence those who did.

Regan, who wrote the VA report, called Thorson's letter unfounded and improper, adding that she stands behind the original report. Regan said she has referred Thorson's actions to a committee that oversees federal inspectors general.

Miller said in a statement that he found VA's actions in the Cooper case troubling.

"The implication that VA OIG was acting as a retaliatory arm of a VA executive who had a score to settle with another employee is downright disturbing and demands further investigation," he said.

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