The Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General is defending its decision to issue a subpoena last week to a nonprofit watchdog group, saying the information could lead to criminal charges tied to a scandal involving patient delays and falsified wait times.
The Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which has set up a hotline for VA whistleblowers, refused to comply with the subpoena it received last week seeking correspondence with current or former VA employees.
POGO officials said the request violates the group’s constitutional rights and that its mission as a public interest watchdog would be “severely damaged” by violating the trust of whistleblower sources.
In his first public remarks on the subpoena, Acting VA IG Richard J. Griffin told Sen. Tom Coburn, Oklahoma Republican, in a letter Friday that the information would aid his investigators looking into manipulated wait times at VA facilities.
He said his office didn’t know that POGO and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America had jointly set up a whistleblower hotline. Instead, he said, his office took note of published comments by POGO’s executive director, Danielle Brian, in the Arizona Republic that POGO had heard from whistleblowers reporting manipulation of wait time data.
“Confirmation of these allegations by federal criminal investigators could lead to felony charges of criminal statutes …” Mr. Griffin wrote.
Last week, Ms. Brian said the IG subpoena infringed on POGO’s “freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of association rights as they relate to all whistleblowers and sources.”
In a statement announcing the subpoena, POGO also said that some of the whistleblowers who contacted the nonprofit hotline had previously filed reports with the IG.
Since April, the IG has received more than 10,500 tips to its own hotline, not including hundreds of referrals from members of Congress, according to Mr. Griffin’s letter.