Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and other lawmakers said VA has not been transparent enough.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and other lawmakers said VA has not been transparent enough. Flicker user Speaker John Boehner

House Panel Subpoenas VA For Artwork Spending, Documents on Delayed $1 Billion Construction Project

Department won’t release certain employee interviews related to the investigation of contract cost overruns of new medical center in Colorado.

A House panel voted Wednesday to subpoena the Veterans Affairs Department for information on cost-overruns related to a $1 billion hospital construction project, as well as spending on artwork in VA facilities.

The Veterans’ Affairs Committee is seeking all unredacted evidentiary documents related to the construction of a new VA medical center in Aurora, Colo., which started in 2011 and was supposed to cost roughly $600 million. The project still isn’t done, and so far has cost more than $1 billion. The department already has provided the committee with “thousands of pages of documents,” including an unredacted copy of the VA’s final report from the Administrative Investigation Board, wrote Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson in an Aug. 19 letter to Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who represents the district that is home to the construction project.

But many lawmakers, including Coffman and committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., do not believe the VA has been sufficiently transparent.

“VA lists 16 groups of documents that it has provided, yet most are either congressionally-mandated or required for some other purpose, or in one case – an advertising contract – entirely unrelated to the AIB,” Miller said during Wednesday’s business meeting, referring to Gibson’s letter. In that letter, Gibson said the department would not release “underlying employee interview transcripts or the unsubstantiated comments or opinions of VA employees that were reviewed as part of the AIB.” The deputy secretary said releasing such information could “chill” the VA’s ability to rely on employees to be candid and forthcoming in future investigations if they fear they will be retaliated against, or “potentially-judged or second-guessed” by Congress.

The committee’s acting Ranking Member Mark Takano, D-Calif., expressed similar concerns on Wednesday, saying the panel’s request for all unredacted documents related to the investigation could expose employees to retaliation. Miller said he would not allow personally identifiable information to be released, and would protect whistleblowers.

The panel also wants more information about the department’s spending on artwork and ornamental furnishings from fiscal 2010 to present. VA officials said they responded to Miller’s request but the chairman called that response “wholly incomplete.” Miller also said he made the initial request about art contracts related to the Palo Alto Health Care System in 2015, but that the VA only responded when he scheduled Wednesday’s business meeting.

“For example, VA claims to have spent approximately $4.7 million on art nationwide from January 2010 to July 2016, yet the committee has already substantiated over $6.4 million spent during this period in the Palo Alto health care system alone, which is merely one health care system within VISN [Veterans Integrated Services Network] 21.”

Miller said expenditures from two sculptures the VA purchased totaling $470,000 were omitted from the $4.7 million figure the department provided.

This summer, an investigation by Open The Books and Cox Media found that the VA had spent $20 million on artwork at facilities across the country between 2004 and 2014. During that time, the department was overwhelmed and understaffed in many facilities; the scandal over veterans waiting too long for medical appointments erupted in 2014.

The VA has said it is developing a national art policy to include commissioned artwork. “While we must be stewards of taxpayer dollars, we also know that providing comprehensive health care for patients goes beyond just offering the most advanced medical treatments. Artwork is one of the many facets that create a healing environment for our nation’s veterans,” the department said in a statement.

Miller was determined to vote on the subpoenas on Wednesday, despite a request from Takano to push it off until next week after further consideration and possible tweaking of the subpoena language. The chairman said he had “176 outstanding deliverables at VA right now.” The oldest request for information is from Dec. 4, 2012, said Miller.

(Image via Flickr user Speaker John Boehner)