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Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General Michael Missal testifies at a House hearing in March 2017. The Senate on Thursday, April 7, 2022, approved a bill that would provide the inspector general the power to subpoena witnesses.

Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General Michael Missal testifies at a House hearing in March 2017. The Senate on Thursday, April 7, 2022, approved a bill that would provide the inspector general the power to subpoena witnesses. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — A watchdog for the Department of Veterans Affairs would be granted the power to subpoena witnesses under a measure approved by the Senate last week.

The Strengthening Oversight for Veterans Act would authorize the VA’s Office of Inspector General to compel witnesses to participate in its investigations. The office conducts hundreds of investigations each year, and while it can force VA employees and contractors to testify, it has no authority over former employees or other individuals. In some cases, VA employees resign before they can be interviewed.

The Senate passed the bill April 7 in a voice vote. A companion bill in the House was also advanced last week by the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, but it hasn’t yet been scheduled for a floor vote.

“Expanding the VA OIG’s authority so it can conduct more thorough investigations will improve transparency and accountability, ensuring our veterans get the care and services they have earned,” Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., said in a statement.

Boozman, along with Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., introduced the legislation last year, 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 have 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, said Christopher Wilber, counselor to the VA inspector general. 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.

The case was one example of instances in which the office could have used court-enforced subpoena power to improve its investigations, said Wilber, who testified to Congress in November about the issue.

“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 at the time. “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 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.

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 that the office uses its subpoena authority.

The Congressional Budget Office, which produces independent analyses of bills, expects the IG’s office will “rarely use” the subpoena authority, according to its report on the bill. If the subjects of the subpoenas refuse to comply, they could face civil or criminal penalties.

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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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