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Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General Michael Missal, shown here testifying at a House hearing in March. On Wednesday, Sen. Joe Manchin, R-W.Va., introduced a bill that would grant subpoena power to the VA Office of Inspector General, which the IG said would allow the office to force people to testify under oath.  
Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General Michael Missal, shown here testifying at a House hearing in March. On Wednesday, Sen. Joe Manchin, R-W.Va., introduced a bill that would grant subpoena power to the VA Office of Inspector General, which the IG said would allow the office to force people to testify under oath.   (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON – Lawmakers on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee want to grant subpoena power to the federal watchdog for the Department of Veterans Affairs, allowing the office to force people to testify under oath.

The Strengthening Oversight for Veterans Act would grant subpoena power to the VA Office of Inspector General. While the office can compel VA employees and contractors to testify, it has no authority to force former employees or other individuals to participate in its investigations.

The lack of court-enforced subpoena power has “hampered prior oversight efforts,” said Christopher Wilber, counselor to the VA inspector general. Wilber spoke Wednesday at a hearing of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. The committee discussed 21 pieces of legislation, including the Strengthening Oversight for Veterans Act.

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., along with Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and John Boozman, R-Ark., introduced the bill in August, following the trial and sentencing of a former nursing assistant who confessed to using insulin to kill seven elderly patients at the VA hospital in Clarksburg, W.Va.

The VA Inspector General’s Office investigated the hospital to understand how the killings could’ve gone undetected for nearly a year. Inspectors sought an interview with a “key individual” who worked in risk mitigation at the hospital during the time of the killings, Wilber said. The person left his or her job while the investigation was underway, and the IG had no way of compelling him or her to testify.

Manchin said the former employee “ran for the hills.”

“Subpoena power is imperative to our ability to reach out to someone like that, serve the subpoena and require them to talk to us,” Wilber said. “It was a critical investigation to understand the root causes of the problems that occurred in Clarksburg so that we could make recommendations to the department.”

The VA Office of Inspector General outlined other cases that were weakened by its lack of subpoena power, including an investigation into one former VA employee who was suspected of providing confidential information to companies to help them win federal contracts. The former employee refused to testify, and the IG had to drop the investigation because of insufficient evidence.

The IG was also unable to interview a former VA dentist who was accused of exposing hundreds of veterans to blood-borne pathogens because of improper sterilization practices. The dentist, as well as the dentist’s supervisor, had left their jobs at the VA during the investigation and refused to participate in voluntary interviews.

The IG was also unable to interview facility leaders at the VA in Biloxi, Miss., who hired a thoracic surgeon, despite knowing of malpractice issues. In that case, the employees also left their jobs before they could be forced to testify.

“Obtaining testimonial subpoena authority would strengthen the OIG’s ability to conduct rigorous and thorough oversight of VA programs and operations,” Wilber said.

The legislation would require the IG to notify the U.S. attorney general if he or she intends to issue a subpoena, giving the attorney general the opportunity to object. The bill also requires the inspector general to report to Congress regularly about the number of times the office uses its subpoena authority.

Another bill was introduced earlier this year to grant the power to all federal inspectors general, but it has yet to be considered in Congress. The inspector general’s offices at two agencies – the Defense Department and Department of Health and Human Services – already have subpoena power.

Representatives from the VA, as well as the Veterans of Foreign Wars and Disabled American Veterans, gave their opinions at the hearing Wednesday. They all expressed their support for the effort.

“We believe it might be necessary to get to the bottom of issues,” said Patrick Murray, legislative director for the VFW. “We believe it can only make VA better.”

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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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