A congressional committee is expected to decide Wednesday whether to force the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to turn over thousands of pages of investigative documents into the over-budget replacement hospital in Aurora that panel members say have been wrongly withheld.
The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs could vote on subpoenaing the VA — an unusual though not unprecedented move — to turn over paperwork that supports the findings of an administrative investigative board that said massive cost overruns at the Aurora construction site were largely the responsibility of higher-ups who have already retired.
“The issue is I just don’t trust them in the way they’ve handled this project,” said Rep. Mike Coffman, an Aurora Republican, chairman of the committee’s subcommittee on oversight and investigations who has been a longtime critic of how the VA has handled the debacle. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the full report does not support their summary.”
At issue is a highly redacted 31-page summary the VA gave Congress — but has not released publicly — that outlines its findings that two people were primarily responsible for the final cost of the still-incomplete project spiraling from about $600 million to $1.73 billion in just a couple of years. Those two — attorney Phillipa Anderson and construction chief Glenn Haggstrom — left the VA and have not met with any discipline because they are no longer government employees.
The summary report appeared only after Coffman and others pressed the VA as early as October 2015 to release the findings that supported its conclusion.
“We’re missing $1 billion. How do you do that type of cost overrun and no one’s fired? How does that happen?” Coffman said. “The VA’s own conclusions in the summary memo essentially place all the blame on individuals who have conveniently now retired. This is unsurprising considering the VA has consistently refused to hold anyone accountable for the many failures on this project.”
Coffman said he’s not sure if the documents hold a bombshell revelation, but VA’s refusal to share the paperwork is reason enough to insist on seeing it.
The VA late Friday said it had provided the committee with frequent updates about the project, including an unredacted copy of the report in March 2016, and noted the moves to Coffman in a letter from Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson just two weeks ago. Coffman refuted the assertions.
Still, the VA on Friday said it was willing to help, though it stopped short of saying it would turn over all its investigative materials.
“The Department of Veterans Affairs values its partnerships with all of its stakeholders, including Congress, as evidenced by regular efforts to strengthen relationships as we work to improve our service to Veterans,” it said in a statement. “We will continue to work in good faith with our partners because nothing is more important than serving the Veterans who nobly served our nation.”
The VA missed an Aug. 31 deadline from committee Chairman Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican who has criticized the agency for similar cost overruns at a number of construction projects. In a July opinion piece in The Denver Post, Miller indicated the VA’s answers to committee questions were suspect.
“The key question is whether VA officials’ construction-related pronouncements are to be believed,” he wrote, noting how the VA would often say it had learned its lesson. “The only thing VA appears to have learned … is how to generate hundreds of millions in cost overruns.”
Redactions in the summary report were made because of privacy concerns, VA has said.
The Post in August 2015 outlined how the construction project, dubbed as a state-of-the-art jewel that would serve thousands of veterans throughout the Rocky Mountain region, became a budget boondoggle from the moment an agreement was inked on the back of a napkin.