- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2015

Lawmakers slammed the Veterans Affairs Department on Monday night for refusing to comply with congressional requests, saying that the department needs to be more open to committee oversight if it ever hopes to regain trust among members and veterans after last year’s waiting list scandal.

VA officials, however, said trust must be rebuilt by members of Congress as well, after some have regularly leaked documents to the press after receiving them from the department.

An increasingly frustrated Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs’ Committee, said he will no longer accept refusals or excuses for delays from VA, which is still trying to figure out the extent of bureaucratic bungling and poor treatment of veterans.

Mr. Miller said there are more than 100 outstanding document requests made by the committee. Of those, 63 are months overdue, he said.

“Let there be no mistake or misunderstanding, when this committee requests documents, I would expect production to be timely, complete and accurate,” the Florida Republican said. “I do not expect a litany of questions about the purpose of a request, a negotiation about how or when it will be answered, or a tutorial from VA officials about how the committee should do its business.”

The problems also extend to the department’s watchdog agency, where Mr. Miller says the inspector general has declined to provide documents or evidence uncovered in its investigations and even failed to release reports to the committee.

In one recent case, the committee referred an investigation of a former senior procurement official to the Treasury Department inspector general when the VA inspector general refused to provide documentation. In its conclusions, the Treasury Department inspector general questioned the integrity of the VA inspector general.

Richard Griffin, the acting inspector general at Veterans Affairs, came under fire over the summer when some lawmakers accused him of changing a report at the request of VA officials to protect senior leadership, though he denied any outside influence in his organization’s findings.

Leigh Bradley, general counsel to the VA, said the department is hesitant to trust members of the committee with documents because in at least two instances, information was leaked to the press within days of being sent to the committee. She urged committee members to work on building a more open relationship with VA officials.

But Mr. Miller said it’s not up to the department to decide what committee members do with information they request.

“I don’t care if you trust me or not, that’s not important. What’s important is the constitution,” he said.

Ms. Bradley noted that some documents requested by Congress may contain sensitive information, like sexual history on a medical record. Releasing that information, she said, would only further erode trust among veterans.

VA officials, however, said they’ve released more than 1,700 reports, made 67 appearances at hearings before Congress and given 400 briefings for members over the past six years, according to prepared testimony of Maureen Regan, counselor to the VA inspector general.

Ms. Regan pushed back against the committee’s criticism, calling the Treasury inspector general’s investigation “baseless” and pointing out several inaccuracies within the report. She said the Veterans Affairs inspector general has requested a review of the investigation by the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to ensure that attacks on the agency’s reputation can be laid to rest.

The House committee began aggressive oversight of the VA last summer after a whistleblower alleged veterans were dying while waiting for care on secret lists, used by VA employees to make wait times appear shorter than they were in order to secure large bonuses for themselves.

Investigators soon found a nationwide scandal of poor care, long wait times and employees who cared more about themselves than the veteran.

The scandal lead to the resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Bob McDonald, who took over the department in July, promised to be more transparent with lawmakers and veterans, publicly giving out his cellular phone number and promising to work better with Congress.

From examples Mr. Miller gave at the hearing, however, it looks like more change in culture will be needed.

In one example of friction between the two sides, Mr. Miller said the committee asked for several boxes of equal employment opportunity documents from the Philadelphia VA and has been waiting to receive the documents for months.

To get ahead of criticism as the hearing approached, Mr. Miller said VA staff offered congressional staffers limited time with the documents under VA employee supervision.

“My flat out answer to this arrangement is no,” Mr. Miller said.

In what is usually one of the most bipartisan committees in Congress, Mr. Miller clashed with several Democrats who said they felt they were being left out of committee business.

Rep. Corrine Brown, Florida Democrat and ranking member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, took issue with Mr. Miller’s transparency complaints, saying that Democratic members of the committee had not been made aware of several of the document requests or invited on a recent trip Mr. Miller attended for committee business.

She urged Mr. Miller to include everyone — including minority-party members — in planning the committee’s schedule.

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