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An artist's conception of the VA hospital in Aurora, Colo., which is estimated to be more than $1 billion over budget.

An artist's conception of the VA hospital in Aurora, Colo., which is estimated to be more than $1 billion over budget. (VA)

WASHINGTON — The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs took action Wednesday to force the Department of Veterans Affairs to hand over investigative documents concerning the overdue and over-budget VA hospital near Denver.

Committee members voted to subpoena the VA to provide copies of all evidence found during an investigation into the hospital, which is in its seventh year of construction and estimated to be more than $1 billion over budget.

Besides demanding to know more about the troubled hospital, the committee also voted Wednesday to subpoena data on the money spent on artwork in VA facilities in the past six years. Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., began criticizing the expense of artwork at VA locations last summer and has received incomplete information from VA officials, he said.

“It is unfortunate that VA’s continued lack of transparency has led us to this decision,” Miller said. “But we have not done so without justification.”

A majority of the committee voted to approve the subpoena, ignoring a call from the ranking minority member, Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., to delay a vote until language was added into the subpoena to protect the identities of whisteblowers.

A summary of the investigation by the Administrative Investigation Board into the hospital concluded that two people were responsible for spiraling construction costs. Those faulted — attorney Phillipa Anderson and construction chief Glenn Haggstrom — were no longer government employees by the end of the investigation and received no disciplinary action.

The cost of construction for the facility in Aurora, Colo., was estimated at about $300 million in the mid-2000s. The latest estimates put the final project cost at about $1.7 billion, with a completion date in early 2018.

Committee members Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., and Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, R-N.H., requested from the VA in July an unredacted copy of the entire investigative file. In response, Sloan Gibson, deputy undersecretary of the VA, said in an Aug. 19 letter that the VA had already provided thousands of pages of documents, including an unredacted final report sent in March. In the letter, Gibson said the information already disclosed was “sufficient” for the committee to understand the investigation’s findings.

Miller said Wednesday that lawmakers have not received all they’ve asked for.

“It has been a long struggle to get straight answers from the department,” Coffman said.

Miller said Takano’s concerns about protecting the identity of whistleblowers was a “red herring” and that the committee would not allow personally identifiable information from the investigative documents to be released.

Both Takano and Kuster voted against the subpoena.

Takano also called the subpoena “unnecessary” because a full report from the inspector general’s office is expected to be publicly released this fall.

At the time lawmakers begrudgingly voted last year to raise the spending limit on the Aurora hospital in order to finish out the project, Miller began criticizing VA officials for other spending on artwork and staff conferences.

In August, Rep. Vern Buchanan, R-Fla., called on the VA to stop purchasing artwork. He cited reports from COX Media and the nonprofit Open the Books stating the VA had spent $20 million on artwork in the past 10 years. Two veterans service organizations, Concerned Veterans for America and Veterans for Common Sense, backed Buchanan’s call.

The VA said in a written statement that the artwork helps create a healing atmosphere in its facilities. It also said the VA is working on a systemwide artwork policy. Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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