- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 3, 2015

The federal agency entrusted to stretch tax dollars as far as they can go to get veterans the best medical care, in fact, has a hard time spending tax dollars wisely.

Over the last year, the Department of Veterans Affairs has been repeatedly cited for waste, fraud, abuse and theft that took valuable tax dollars away from veterans, many who are still waiting in long backlogs to get benefits decisions.

The examples are jaw-dropping, starting with the a memo that surfaced in March by the VA’s chief procurement officer, Jan. R. Frye, who went public with a stunning admission that the VA likely wastes $6 billion a year on unnecessary contracts, purchases and services.

“Doors are swung wide open for fraud, waste and abuse,” Mr. Frye, the deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics, wrote in a whistleblower letter that made national headlines.

The examples backing up Mr. Frye’s claims just keep piling up:

The VA’s inspector general reported that the agency’s human resources department wasted $6.1 million on two conferences in Orlando, Florida, that treated employees more to vacation than to training.

The inspector general also divulged in that report that department officials wasted $97,906 on trinkets like bags, pens and water that were unnecessary. VA employees also improperly accepted gifts including room upgrades, meals, limousine services, golf, spa services, helicopter rides and tickets to see the Rockettes.

In July, an employee at the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Exeter pled guilty to stealing 150 marble headstones from a veterans cemetery in a scheme that went unnoticed for a long time.

In June, a former head engineer at the VA hospital in East Orange, New Jersey, was accused of taking $1.2 million in kickbacks for contracts, which fleeced taxpayers.

The VA’s inspector general found last month that the Veterans Benefits Administration mismanaged millions of dollars in benefits for veterans who were unable to manage their own income and estates due to age, injury or disability. Among the woes cited in the report was a failure to remove two custodians who had misspent benefit funds.

In testimony before Congress in May, Mr. Frye cited reports that VA employees in the Bronx in New York City had swiped charge cards 2,000 times, saying they were buying prosthetic legs and arms for veterans. Each charge was for $24,999, one dollar below the VA’s charging limit for purchase cards. When lawmakers demanded details about the charges, they were told there was no documentation.

For wasting federal tax dollars intended to help veterans who deserve the best health care money can buy after their service to this country, the Department of Veterans Affairs wins this weeks Golden Hammer, a weekly distinction awarded by The Washington Times highlighting the most egregious examples of wasteful federal spending.

The recent record of VA woes frustrates spending watchdogs, because the agency claims it needs more money to clear backlogs of cases for veterans waiting for benefit determinations.

“At a time when the VA has a massive backlog in getting veterans health care and getting veterans paperwork processed so they can see a doctor, it is obscene that they are wasting money on self congratulatory conferences,” said Richard Manning, president of Americans for Limited Government, a spending watchdog.

Following initial reports in 2014 that 40 veterans had died while waiting for health care at the Phoenix, Arizona, VA hospital, lawmakers, veterans groups and watchdogs called for President Obama to fire top VA officials and have echoed those cries since.

In May 2014, Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA’s top health official retired early at the request of then-VA Secretary Eric Shinseki, who resigned later that month.

“The failure of the Obama administration to fire VA officials for continuing to waste billions of taxpayer dollars intended to provide health care for our nation’s veterans shows the disregard our selfie-obsessed president has for those who fought to preserve our nation’s freedom,” Mr. Manning said.

A VA spokesperson declined comment on the Hammer, instead referring a reporter to VA Secretary Robert McDonald’s statement this spring.

“VA’s priority is to provide needed health care to the Veterans we serve. We work with tens of thousands of health care providers in communities across the country using the acquisition tools most appropriate for VA and the provider to deliver that care. It is clear that serious allegations have been made regarding VA’s purchase authorities and we are working diligently to review them,” he said at the time.

Mr. Frye told lawmakers in May he went public only after he had brought his concerns over the VA’s financial mismanagement to Mr. McDonald in the form of a 35-page memorandum in March but heard nothing back from him for seven weeks.

“I took to heart the Secretary’s invitation for ‘whistle blowers’ to step forward,” Mr. Frye wrote in his letter, referring to Mr. McDonald’s request for VA employees to speak up about issues within the department during the fallout from the scandal in Phoenix.

Shortly after Mr. Frye released his letter Mr. McDonald told Government Executive that Mr. Frye’s memo was “just showing what he needs to improve, so I’m excited about him improving that.”

He acknowledged that waste within the department’s procurement office was a long-standing problem, but stopped short of taking responsibility for it. He said it was Mr. Frye’s “responsibility to fix it,” and added the department “has a lot of work to do.”

Members of Congress are losing patience with the VA. House Veterans Affairs’ Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, went to the House floor in July to urge his colleagues to take more aggressive actions and create greater accountability inside an agency that seemed reluctant to punish its own for repeated failure.

The VA is “failing and continuing to fail,” Mr. Miller said. “The veterans deserve better. The status quo doesn’t work. Are you going to stand with the veterans or the bureaucrats? I know where your hearts are — it’s with the veterans, and of course it’s with the employees and the people. But there are some rotten people that work in the department that need to be fired, not protected.”

• Kellan Howell can be reached at khowell@washingtontimes.com.

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