What an odd battle the Department of Veterans Affairs continues to wage over releasing information meant to explain the massive cost overruns at its Aurora hospital still under construction.
The latest development is that, despite being handed a subpoena from Congress, VA officials are still withholding information that could prove useful in getting to the bottom of how the Aurora facility blew past its expected price by more than a billion dollars. This week, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson turned in transcripts of 18 interviews, when 71 exhibits were due.
Further, while Gibson reported that the rest of the materials would be released — gradually — he also requested that the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs shield the information from public view. He did so by repeating his argument from the summer — when trying to keep all of the records secret even from Congress — that releasing the details of the investigation could hamper future fact-finding efforts.
We had hoped the subpoena request already put this question to rest, but here we are. Like a hospital with an opening date that keeps moving into the future, and a price tag that continues to grow, Gibson’s foot-dragging is starting to become as expected as it is outrageous.
As Rep. Mike Coffman, who represents the district in which the hospital will someday open, said in a statement this week: “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 four years ago.”
At issue are the field notes investigators compiled to craft their report to Congress to explain how it came to be that the Aurora facility went off the rails. Remember that so far Veterans’ Affairs committee members have only seen a trim summary of the findings. Investigations by The Denver Post and the VA’s inspector general have documented many reasons the facility failed to hold in costs, but presumably investigators with access to those involved in the project would be able to discover more detail that would help prevent future overruns.
As the committee rightly notes, such information would be helpful to veterans whose care the VA seeks to provide and taxpayers footing the bill.
We’ve argued that, while it is only responsible to seek to protect innocent employees’ private information, there are rather routine ways to redact those details while preserving information that might lead to better understanding of what went wrong. And the House committee members seeking the interviews and exhibits have promised to keep such personal information from public view.
Yes, the back-and-forth is getting tedious. But the goal is laudable.
And beyond preventing future boondoggles, there is still the question whether those responsible will pay for their misdeeds. While two of the actors identified by the IG as responsible for decisions that led to the overruns retired during the investigations, the VA has maintained that no other punishments are warranted.
Given widespread doubt about that assertion, it would be to the VA’s benefit to prove the point.