Congress right to press VA on Aurora hospital

The Denver Post

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Washington, DC, September 13, 2016 | By The Denver Post Editorial Board | comments

Taxpayers in Colorado and across the nation have been kept in the dark far too long about what went so disastrously awry with the mushrooming cost to build the still-under-construction veterans hospital in Aurora.

One would think a billion-dollar overrun for a facility originally slated to cost $604 million would demand a timely explanation. But as we saw again last week, the top brass at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs keeps trying to keep its secrets. Though the VA completed a report on the matter more than a year ago, it has declined to make its findings public. What’s more, the VA has kept information from congressional oversight.

We’re pleased that members of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs have taken action meant to free up that information. Last week, the committee voted to compel VA officials to make available detailed records from the department’s internal investigation into the eye-popping overrun.

After officials announced last year that the cost of the hospital had jumped to $1.7 billion, an investigation by The Denver Post found several reasons to help explain the overruns. Chief among them were mismanagement within the VA and lax oversight.

But VA officials presumably had far more access to those involved in the Aurora project. In fact, they collected thousands of pages of interviews and other investigative documents that could help objective reviewers study the billion-dollar mishap. Congressional members have been right to ask for that information, but so far have received only 33 pages of summary information about the contents of those files.

That’s just an astonishing fact. After overseeing what once was called the biggest construction failure in VA history, and conducting a massive investigation that might explain how to prevent future boondoggles, the only accounting to date is a slim summary that only members of a congressional committee are able to view.

As committee member Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., said it: “If the department’s effort to hide problems in Aurora sound bad, the department’s efforts to avoid subsequent accountability have been worse.”

The VA has argued that if it provides a full account with the investigative records attached, the fallout could imperil future fact-finding efforts; it makes that claim arguing that the supplemental records contain confidential information. While it is only responsible to expect that innocent employees be protected, VA officials surely could have found ways to redact identities and protect those employees.

Members of the congressional committee now seeking the records through subpoena make exactly that point. They say they have no intention of making public confidential or personal information.

To their credit, VA officials have said they comply with the committee’s request. Committee members need to hold them to it.

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