Cordial No More: Lawmakers Unhappy With VA's McDonald

Robert McDonald
Robert McDonald

WASHINGTON -- As subpoenas fly, the once cordial correspondence between lawmakers and VA Secretary Bob McDonald is turning ugly.

A letter that House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Florida, sent to McDonald on Friday and obtained by Stars and Stripes, starts with a reminder of what happened to the secretary's ill-fated predecessor, Eric Shinseki.

"This Committee exposed the Department's delays-in-care scandal at an April 9, 2014, congressional hearing, setting in motion a sequence of events that essentially forced the resignation of your predecessor and led to you becoming Secretary," Miller writes in response to a McDonald letter protesting a threat to subpoena records related to the Philadelphia VA Regional Office that the veterans committee has sought for months.

On Thursday, the Committee members voted without objection to issue the subpoena. That came one day after Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, subpoenaed documents from an investigation into the Tomah (Wisconsin) VA Medical Center that the VA's inspector general has long refused to release.

McDonald says the VA sent the committee what it had requested, but with some personal information redacted, a step he says was necessary given leaks from the committee.

"I am confused by the need for a subpoena given that on multiple occasions, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has offered to make available the full, unredacted information you sought," McDonald wrote in his letter to Miller. "Had the Committee staff agreed to certain reasonable privacy conditions, your staff would have seen all relevant and applicable files."

When McDonald was appointed VA secretary in July to clean up the VA, lawmakers expressed hope that the former Procter & Gamble CEO could reform the second largest department in the federal government.

But the relationship between Congress and VA officials has been increasingly contentious as a yearlong crisis in veterans health care continues to worsen. The latest ugly turn came with recent revelations that employees of the Philadelphia VA Regional Office regularly ignored correspondence from veterans and kept staff in a vermin-infested building.

That prompted a Veterans Affairs Committee hearing at which employees from Philadelphia and the beleaguered Oakland VA office told stories of abuse and retaliation, giving another black eye to a federal agency struggling to regain the confidence of veterans and Congress.

Lawmakers have been especially irked what they see as reluctance by the VA to hand over documents related to the agency's growing list of scandals, as well as the low number of senior executives fired for those scandals.

In response to McDonald's assertion that a subpoena "unnecessarily erodes the confidence of Veterans and the American people in our ability to work together in the best interest of Veterans," Miller wrote: "Contrary to the assertions in your letter, it is the VA's actions to stonewall this Committee -- actions that began long before your tenure as Secretary, and continue to occur today -- which has eroded the confidence of Veterans and the American people in our ability to work together. I trust that through VA's immediate cessation of its groundless efforts to withhold information, we can rebuild that confidence."

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