- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The chairman of a House investigative subcommittee overseeing the Veterans Affairs Department says lawmakers are planning a series of hearings in the new Congress next year to investigate ongoing VA contracting scandals.

Rep. Mike Coffman, the Colorado Republican who heads investigations for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said in an interview that he expects a “critical mass” of whistleblowers to help the panel probe mismanagement in the agency’s $15 billion-plus procurement system.

“There’s no question that there are a lot of problems there,” he said. “My hope is that the subcommittee will be a catalyst for change.”

He said he wants to probe further on a recent inspector general’s report that found a senior contracting official leaked protected information while trying to strong-arm staffers into using reverse auction company FedBid.

That inspector general investigation also showed the company plotted to “assassinate” the character of another senior VA executive who questioned the contractor’s costs and complained about mismanagement of the contract.

Ultimately, the inspector general recommended the company be disbarred from VA contracting and the contracting official, Susan Taylor, resigned. The agency cut ties with the company. FedBid has denied any wrongdoing and said it’s cooperated with the inspector general investigation.

But Mr. Coffman said other agencies doing business with the company “ought to be looking under the covers to see if they’ve got the same issues.”

In another example, the VA was recently sued for entering into a construction deal for a medical center in western Pennsylvania with a project manager under FBI investigation who was convicted of embezzlement.

And the Government Accountability Office has raised concerns about delays of VA construction projects in several states in recent years.

“What you have in the VA is mismanagement in the procurement system combined with a lack of oversight,” Mr. Coffman said.

Mr. Coffman has railed against problems with a hospital project in his home state of Colorado, where costs rose from $600 million to about $1 billion.

Earlier this year, he introduced a bill to require that the VA appoint a special project manager from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to oversee delayed VA hospital projects.

While procurement fraud and mismanagement will be a big focus in the upcoming Congress, the congressman said lawmakers need to ensure that whistleblowers are protected when they pass along information about abuse and mismanagement.

“We’ve done certain things to protect whistleblowers and will continue to do so,” he said.

Mr. Coffman said the committee staff frequently hears from whistleblowers inside the agency, often anonymously, “who will let us know what’s going on and we need to maintain that trust.”

He said he’s encouraged by new Secretary Bob McDonald’s pledge to ensure a whistleblower-friendly culture at VA, but he’s not confident that things really have changed.

“I think the new secretary wants to make a difference, but I think he’s also struggling to make a difference,” Mr. Coffman said.

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