Hours before handing his resignation to President Barack Obama, former Veterans Affairs secretary Eric Shinseki tried to explain the reasons behind his failures in a speech for the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
“I was too trusting of some, and I accepted as accurate reports that I now know to have been misleading with regard to patient wait times. I can’t explain the lack of integrity among some of the leaders of our health care facilities,” he said. “This is something I rarely encountered during 38 years in uniform, and so I will not defend it because it’s indefensible, but I can take responsibility for it and I do.”
Now members of Congress are pushing back against what they claim is a similar trend of lies, stonewalling, and obfuscation that Shinseki lamented. In this case, the House Veterans Affairs Committee is threatening more than just pink slips.
At a hearing on Thursday, as committee members listened to a panel of private sector experts offering their own damning indictments concerning VA management culture and the cartoonish metrics of care doctors must face, the discussion rapidly descended into accusations that VA officials deceived Congress.
The hearing on potential fixes for the VA took a major turn when the committee’s chairman, Republican Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida, made a thinly veiled threat that VA officials may have perjured themselves to Congress.
Near the end of the hearing, Miller quoted the full text of a statute regarding obstruction of committee business while Deputy Undersecretary of the Veteran’s Health Administration Robert Jesse, who was testifying, sat and listened. Jesse was being questioned by Rep. Beto O’Rourke, a Democrat from Texas, over false wait times reports for mental health services at the El Paso VA hospital that he had received prior to recent revelations over secret wait lists there, when Miller pulled out a piece of paper and began reading:
“Mr. O’Rourke, I would like to read for you from Title 18 United States Code Section 15015,” Miller said. “‘Whoever corruptly, or by threats or force, or by any threatening letter or communication influences, obstructs, or impedes or endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede the due and proper administration of the law under which any pending proceeding is being had before any department or agency of the United States, or the due and proper exercise of the power of inquiry under which any inquiry or investigation is being had by either House, or any committee of either House or any joint committee of the Congress, shall be fined under this title, imprisoned not more than five years.’”
Earlier in the panel, Miller had blasted Jesse over his staff asking for an organizational chart of VA mental health services in mid-April, and had still not received it. After Jesse assured him that they would try to have the material to him the next day, Miller said, “I noticed you put ‘try’ in there.”
In a statement to Task & Purpose, Miller said he was serious about his threat. “Interfering with Congress’ constitutionally mandated oversight responsibility is not just wrong, it’s against the law. Right now, Acting Veterans Affairs Secretary Sloan Gibson needs to immediately send a clear and powerful message that criminal behavior will not be tolerated within VA’s ranks. The only way to do this is by immediately firing anyone who directed VA officials not to speak with members of Congress.”
Miller’s warning followed a litany of complaints from fellow committee members concerning VA transparency, or lack thereof.
Republican Rep. Dan Benishek of Michigan stated: “I’ve had VA physicians tell me that they were not allowed to talk to me by their superiors, they’re told not to speak to me. Is it the policy of VA to not allow physicians to speak to Congress? If somebody comes to me with that complaint, can you promise me they will not get fired?”
After Jesse assured him that he could, Miller noted that interfering with whistleblowers was unlawful. “But also understand that it is a crime, it is criminal,” he said.
“It is our understanding at our committee that there have been people instructed not to talk to Congress,” Miller said.
Jesse explained that the VA has been putting out a lot of data, and they wanted to be sure that individual facilities were distributing the approved data “in order to not mislead their congressionals.”
“We were told we would receive it once the report was final. The report’s final. I got a call today that my local media got it before I got it. I just don’t understand why people in VA won’t follow through on their commitment,” Miller responded.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Kansas, claimed that he was told that there were no problems with the Kansas City VA hospital, and subsequently reports came out over unauthorized lists numbering over a thousand veterans. Jesse claimed that it was a software defect concerning standard scheduling practices.
Dozens of vets who may have died waiting are considered by some groups to be the tip of the iceberg. Jesse acknowledged that there were serious cultural and management issues that led to these programs, but denied that the VA was stonewalling Congress.
Jesse himself was accused himself by Miller of issuing an incomplete report following a deadly outbreak of Legionnaires disease at the Pittsburgh VA that claimed six lives, which was later reported to be caused by sustained neglect of a water filtration system. Jesse countered that he reported the information he had to Congress — but it wasn’t until a later report by the Centers for Disease Control that the true cause was determined.
The final testimony that triggered Miller’s threat was O’Rourke’s testimony concerning the VA hospital in El Paso. He said he got reports for the last 12 months showing that the average wait time for mental health services was three days. “The audit we got from the VHA this week shows that the same group, these are new patients seeking mental health care appointments, it’s actually 60 days, which make El Paso VHA the fourth worst in the country.” He went on the demand: “I want to know what the consequences are going to be for reporting false, inaccurate data.”
Congressional charges are very rare, especially toward the vast civil service that the VA falls under. Traditionally opprobrium is reserved by the opposition party toward administration-appointed officials, but the rank and file management of the VA is increasingly in the cross hairs. Following revelations that the Justice Department is already launching a criminal probe, it is becoming more and more likely Congress may be joining the prosecution.
Stephen Carlson served two tours in Afghanistan as an infantryman with the 10th Mountain Division. He lives in Washington, D.C.