Congress Gives VA Watchdog Subpoena Power After Hampered Investigation into West Virginia Murders

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This is the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, W.Va.
This is the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg, W.Va., on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Congress is strengthening the Department of Veterans Affairs' watchdog's ability to compel witness testimony after the office struggled to investigate problems that allowed a string of patient murders in West Virginia to go undiscovered for two years.

The House on Tuesday night voted 406-6 to approve the Strengthening Oversight for Veterans Act, which would give the VA's inspector general the power to subpoena former VA employees and others who don't work for the department. The bill passed the Senate unanimously last month and now awaits President Joe Biden's signature.

Right now, the VA inspector general, or IG, can compel testimony only from current VA employees and contractors. The bill would extend that power to force testimony from retired employees, people who have transferred to other federal agencies, former employees of current contractors, or other individuals who don't have an employment or contractual relationship with the department.

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That lack of subpoena power hampered the IG's investigation into how a nursing assistant was able to carry out a string of murders at the Louis A. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Clarksburg, West Virginia, without anyone noticing, the office has said.

"West Virginia veterans have experienced the horrific impacts of top-down VA leadership failures, resulting in the tragic deaths of seven veterans at the Clarksburg VA Medical Center," Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said in a statement last month after the bill passed the Senate. "The OIG currently does not have testimonial subpoena powers, which resulted in the OIG having limited authority during the Clarksburg VAMC investigation. Our bipartisan legislation addresses this oversight by granting the OIG the authority to conduct thorough investigations."

In addition to Manchin, the bill was sponsored by Senate Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark.

In 2020, Reta Mays pleaded guilty to deliberately injecting seven patients with fatal doses of insulin and attempting to kill an eighth patient in 2017 and 2018.

Last year, the IG released a scathing report that found "serious, pervasive and deep-rooted clinical and administrative failures" allowed Mays' killings to go unnoticed for two years. But the IG also said its investigation was incomplete because an employee who worked in risk management left the job mid-investigation and so couldn't be made to testify.

The IG has also identified at least five other investigations since 2017 where a lack of subpoena power hamstrung its oversight efforts because key witnesses left their jobs during the probes, including a dentist in Tomah, Wisconsin, accused of exposing nearly 600 veterans to blood-borne pathogens because of improper sterilization practices, and leaders of a facility in Biloxi, Mississippi, who hired a thoracic surgeon despite past malpractice issues.

The subpoena power granted in the bill approved Tuesday would expire in 2025 unless Congress extends it. Prior to issuing a subpoena, the IG would also need to notify the Justice Department, which could block the subpoena if it interferes with an ongoing criminal probe.

The six votes against the bill came from Republicans: Reps. Andy Biggs of Arizona; Lauren Boebert of Colorado; Russ Fulcher of Idaho; Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia; and Ronny Jackson and Chip Roy, both of Texas.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: VA Nursing Aide Reta Mays Gets 7 Life Sentences for Killing Veterans in Her Care

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