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Lawmaker Calls VA Official a 'Political Operative'

Rep. Mike Coffman

A Colorado congressman on Thursday lashed out at a Department of Veterans Affairs official over delays that lawmakers say they routinely experience when asking the VA for information.

Rep. Mike Coffman, visibly frustrated over waiting months for VA responses to various queries and requests for information, accused VA Assistant Secretary Joan M. Mooney of "engaging in a systematic cover-up" of problems at the department and said VA Secretary Eric Shinseki would be "complicit" if she still had her job following the hearing.

Coffman -- clearly annoyed with Mooney's determination to not concede that any of the wait times cited by lawmakers was too long -- attacked Mooney personally.

"I think you want us to believe that you're just incredibly incompetent," Coffman said. "You know, I don't think that's true. I don't think you're incompetent. I think you're a very smart political operative." Coffman accused Mooney of delaying information reaching Congress to cover up problems there.

"If ... Shinseki keeps you on after this hearing then he is also complicit in that cover-up," Coffman said. "You are not who you appear to be here today -- this lovely idiot, this incompetent manager."

Mooney retained her composure throughout the hearing, including Coffman's remarks.

But also during the hearing, she refused to be drawn into discussion about whether the lengthy wait times Congress experienced are acceptable.

Lawmakers pointed out it took four months for the VA to provide information it sought regarding the deaths of veterans at the VA hospital in Pittsburgh from Legionnaires disease and for its investigation into a VA computer breach that exposed 20 million veterans' personal and health information to foreign hackers.

In one case, the VA took 52 weeks to respond to a request for information.

Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., asked Mooney if it would be acceptable for an employee to take a year to get her information she requested. Mooney only replied that she understood his frustration.

So that would be acceptable to you, Miller asked? Mooney again replied: "I understand your frustration."

Mooney told lawmakers her office does its best to respond in a timely way to congressional requests for information, but the complexity of the issues and ensuring the information is properly reviewed can cause delays.

Since 2009, she said, her office has provided information on or responded to more than 80,000 congressional requests. These included testimony before more than 260 hearings, conducting more than 2,000 congressional briefings or meetings, responding to more than 4,700 questions for the record and processing more than 75,000 member inquires.

This does not count casework originating with local congressional offices with VA regional offices and hospitals, she said.

"During the first six months of Fiscal Year 2013, VA responded to over 2,000 formal requests for policy related information and technical assistance requests on legislation," she told the lawmakers.

Miller said he was also frustrated that the VA also sometimes giving information requested by lawmakers to reporters before Congress sees it.

"For example, on January 18, 2013, I requested emails and documents pertaining to a deadly Legionella bacteria outbreak at the Pittsburgh VA medical center," he said. "As of Sep 17, 2013, no emails had been provided.  Worse, I learned that the media was provided some of the same emails I requested in as few as 20 days ... [The] days where VA is more responsive to the media than a Congressional oversight Committee must end."

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Department of Veteran Affairs Congress Bryant Jordan
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