WASHINGTON (AP) — Call it the battle of the watchdogs.
The inspector general’s office at the Department of Veterans Affairs is defending its actions after the office came under unusual criticism from its counterpart at the Treasury Department.
In a report in December, the VA inspector’s office found that a former VA procurement officer improperly steered $15 million in uncompetitive contracts to a friend’s company. The report also accused the former official, Iris Cooper, of a “lack of candor” during the IG’s investigation.
The VA report sparked a rare and sharp rebuke from the Treasury Department’s inspector general, who said the allegations against Cooper were unsupported and based on a complaint by a VA supervisor that Cooper had complained about for creating a hostile work environment. Cooper is now a top contracting official with the Treasury Department.
Eric Thorson, the Treasury IG, said his review found that while Cooper knew two officers of the company that received the contract, Ohio-based Tridec Technologies, she did not award the contract nor did she improperly influence those who did. Thorson said the VA report “calls into question the integrity of the VA OIG’s actions.”
Maureen Regan, a top official at the VA inspector’s office who wrote the VA report, called Thorson’s letter unfounded and improper. She told a congressional committee Monday night that she stands behind the original report and has referred Thorson’s actions to a committee that oversees federal inspectors general.
The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee said he found VA’s actions in the Cooper case troubling.
“The implication that VA OIG was acting as a retaliatory arm of a VA executive who had a score to settle with another employee is downright disturbing and demands further investigation,” said Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla.
Miller’s comment came as he accused the inspector general and other VA officials of withholding reports from his panel, despite pledges to be transparent. The VA’s actions are impeding the ability of Congress to oversee a department rocked by a scandal over long wait times for veterans seeking medical care and falsified records covering up delays, Miller said.
At a hearing Monday night, Miller said more than 100 requests for information from the VA remain outstanding, including 63 that are months past due. VA officials have challenged the need for some of the information he has requested, Miller said, and withheld other information based on “unfounded fears” that the information might be publicly released.
Miller said he won’t tolerate anyone interfering with a congressional investigation.
“Let there be no mistake or misunderstanding: When this committee requests documents, I expect production to be timely, complete and accurate,” Miller said.
While he is willing to work with VA Secretary Robert McDonald and other officials to implement needed reforms, Miller said he is not willing to let McDonald or anyone else “dictate how the committee conducts oversight or performs investigations.”
Leigh Bradley, the VA’s general counsel, said the agency is committed to accommodating congressional requests “as fully and quickly” as possible.
Miller said he was especially disappointed that the VA’s Office of Inspector General has withheld crucial information from the committee, including a report on excessive wait times at the Phoenix VA hospital, the epicenter of the wait time scandal that erupted last year.
The inspector general’s office also withheld for nearly a year a report on over-medication problems at a VA hospital in Tomah, Wisconsin, Miller and other lawmakers said. The Tomah facility was dubbed “Candy Land” by some veterans for its rampant practice of prescribing opiates and other pain killers.
Miller said Acting Inspector General Richard Griffin has ignored laws mandating that inspectors general keep Congress currently and fully informed. Instead, he has “taken the stilted position that other than a semi-annual report,” any other reports to Congress are issued at the IG’s discretion, Miller said.
Regan said the IG’s office has complied with all legal requirements for reporting to Congress and responding to congressional requests.
In the past six years, the IG’s office at that agency has issued more than 1,700 reports, provided testimony at 67 congressional hearings, conducted 400 briefings to members of Congress and staff, and responded “on a daily basis” to telephone calls and emails from the committee and its staff, she said.