VA offers partial response to Congress, leaves big questions unanswered
WASHINGTON — Responding to a subpoena request from Congress, the Department of Veterans Affairs this week turned over some — but not all — of its investigative findings into a Colorado hospital that blew its construction budget by more than $1 billion.
The documents, which include the transcripts of 18 interviews previously off-limits to lawmakers, could provide new clues about why the unfinished medical complex in Aurora saw its price jump from $604 million to about $1.7 billion.
But congressional aides said the 18 transcripts represent only a fraction of the 71 exhibits that were due to Congress on Thursday. An accompanying letter from a top VA official included the promise that the agency would provide the rest on a “rolling basis.” But it’s unclear how much of the investigation ultimately will become public.
“We request that the Committee keep these documents in a secure location, limit use to those purposes consistent with the Committee’s oversight purpose, and ensure no further disclosure of them,” wrote VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson in a two-page letter to U.S. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., who chairs the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.
“Further, it is our expectation that this type of sensitive information will not be released or disclosed without prior consultation with the Department,” added Gibson, who indicated he was concerned that publicizing the transcripts could make it harder for future VA investigators to get agency officials to talk.
The incomplete response from the VA represents the latest chapter in a fight between the agency and Congress over the Aurora project. And it drew condemnation from U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora.
“Over $1 billion in taxpayer money has been wasted on a single construction project,” Coffman said in a statement. “The VA’s attempt to slow walk the (report’s) release is completely illegal and is deeply offensive to both our taxpayers, who are footing the bill, and our veterans, who do not have access to a hospital that was supposed to be completed years ago.”
After the VA announced in March 2015 that the price of the hospital had jumped to about $1.7 billion, lawmakers demanded answers on what went wrong.
In response, the VA launched its own investigation, and in March of this year, the agency said it was done with the inquiry and — to the chagrin of many lawmakers — indicated that no one new at the agency needed to be punished for an effort once dubbed the biggest construction failure in VA history.
Two agency officials retired amid investigations into the project.
Although the agency says it has showed members of Congress its report, the VA previously has refused to make public the findings or release much of its investigative material to lawmakers, a stance that led to the subpoena request this month.
Separate investigations by The Denver Post and the VA Office of Inspector General identified several reasons for the massive price hike: notably, poor oversight, an overly expensive design and rampant mismanagement.
The VA now expects to finish the project in January 2018 and plans to have it fully functioning later that year.