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VA inspector general accuses acting VA secretary of concealing information

VA Medical Center (Veterans Health/Flickr)
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The acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the agency’s inspector general are engaged in a power struggle, each accusing the other of withholding access to information and impeding VA oversight.

The rift was revealed this week when Inspector General Michael Missal sought help from Congress to obtain information that he argues VA leaders have been unlawfully withholding for months.

Missal wrote to lawmakers Monday that the VA is inappropriately refusing to release hundreds of employee complaints submitted to the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection – information he’s been attempting to get since November.

The struggle sparked a larger debate between Missal and acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke over the responsibilities of an inspector general. In letters sent back and forth during the past two weeks, Missal accused O’Rourke of working to hinder his oversight duties. O’Rourke lambasted Missal, describing him and his staff as unprofessional, biased and reckless.

At the conclusion of a letter sent June 11, O’Rourke challenged Missal’s role as an independent watchdog.

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“You… appear to misunderstand the independent nature of your role and operate as a completely unfettered, autonomous agency,” O’Rourke wrote. “You are reminded that OIG is loosely tethered to VA, and in your specific case as the VA inspector general, I am your immediate supervisor. You are directed to act accordingly.”

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., and Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont. — the ranking Democrats on the House and Senate veterans affairs committees — stepped in Tuesday and asked the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency to get involved. The council is an independent entity in the executive branch of the federal government that weighs in on effectiveness issues at IG offices.

Walz on Tuesday described O’Rourke as “out of control” and unfit for government leadership. O’Rourke began working at the VA in January 2017 and has served as acting secretary for three weeks.

“O’Rourke made an explicit attempt to intimidate the inspector general and deter the VA Office of Inspector General from carrying out its legal duty to hold VA officials accountable to the American people and the veterans among them,” Walz said in a statement. “This is extremely unacceptable.”

The information Missal wants is from the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, a VA office created last year to carry out disciplinary actions and handle whistleblower complaints.

Missal said he requested access to employee complaints filed with the accountability office in order to ensure his staff isn’t duplicating an investigation the VA is already working on. He also wants to make certain his office is forwarded all complaints involving criminal activity. Federal statutes mandate the VA refer any cases involving felony crimes to the inspector general.

“It is not clear why the department is resisting our access to these records,” Missal wrote Monday in a letter to O’Rourke. “Denying the OIG access, or selectively providing access to certain records, is antithetical to the fundamental purpose of [the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection] and its stated commitment to transparency. It deprives veterans and the public of the ability to ensure that OAWP is in fact holding department officials accountable consistent with its mandate.”

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Since the accountability office was created last June, it’s received between 119 and 224 employee complaints each month, according to publicly posted data on the VA website. They range from complaints about abuses of authority and wasted funds, to whistleblower retaliation and risks to safety. Missal said only 14 of those complaints have been shared with his staff.

In O’Rourke’s response letter, he argued it wasn’t appropriate for Missal to request unrestricted and continuous access to the employee complaints.

This week, four Democratic senators urged Missal to investigate how VA leaders are using the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection. They cited a lack of transparency from the agency, and they worried new disciplinary powers at the VA were being used to punish staff inappropriately for minor offenses or whistleblowing.

The senators’ call for an investigation made it more critical that the VA hand over the whistleblower complaints, Missal said.

In his letter, O’Rourke shifted the argument, accusing the inspector general’s staff of being uncooperative and withholding their information from the accountability office. He specifically referred to employee complaints received through the IG hotline that he contended Missal refused to share. Missal later argued his staff had fulfilled all requests for information from the accountability office.

Moreover, O’Rourke accused Missal of overreaching and abusing his authority in previous instances. He also said Missal’s office failed to work fairly and objectively, which had led to “significant harm” to the VA and its employees.

“There are several disturbing examples of OIG investigative reports that improperly and recklessly cast the VA and its employees in an unfavorable light and demonstrate clear investigative misconduct and neglectful senior executive oversight,” O’Rourke wrote.

O’Rourke did not include examples of specific investigative reports.

Missal said O’Rourke has refused to meet in person to discuss their disagreements.

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© 2018 the Stars and Stripes

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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