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VA Official Says He Will Allow Senior Executives to Speak More Freely

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Rep. Tim Walz and others are calling for more transparency at VA. Rep. Tim Walz and others are calling for more transparency at VA. J. Scott Applewhite/AP File Photo

Members of Congress long have been frustrated with what they perceive as the Veterans Affairs Department’s lack of transparency as well as foot-dragging when it comes to firing poor-performing and corrupt senior executives. House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., subpoenaed five VA employees to testify at hearing Monday night about questionable relocation expenses, pay raises and hiring practices; two of them pleaded the Fifth Amendment and refused to answer questions.

“I am sick and tired of asking for information from the department, and being given a runaround,” Miller said on Monday.

Democrats aren’t happy either with the VA’s approach to communication. “Don’t expect the VA in this environment to get the benefit of the doubt on anything,” Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., told witnesses, before taking the department to task for withholding information from the press and restricting access to senior leaders.

The media “can’t get a straight answer; they don’t know what’s going on,” Walz said, adding that the department should make senior leaders “who know what’s going on” more available to journalists. “Can’t you give them some rein to answer questions from the press without having to clear it all the way back here, and all the way back down?”

Danny Pummill, principal deputy undersecretary for benefits who is now acting undersecretary at the Veterans Benefits Administration, agreed. “I give you my word. I will give them more rein,” Pummill said, referring to allowing senior executives to speak more freely. “I want them to engage with the press. I want them to engage with their local legislators.”

Walz said it’s in the VA’s best interest to give senior executives it has confidence in “the authority to talk to people and reassure them, because the minute this gets held back, the public thinks the worst.”

Kellie Lunney covers federal pay and benefits issues, the budget process and financial management. After starting her career in journalism at Government Executive in 2000, she returned in 2008 after four years at sister publication National Journal writing profiles of influential Washingtonians. In 2006, she received a fellowship at the Ohio State University through the Kiplinger Public Affairs in Journalism program, where she worked on a project that looked at rebuilding affordable housing in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina. She has appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, NPR and Feature Story News, where she participated in a weekly radio roundtable on the 2008 presidential campaign. In the late 1990s, she worked at the Housing and Urban Development Department as a career employee. She is a graduate of Colgate University.

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