VA official evades questions from Congress

VA official evades questions from Congress

VA official Joan Mooney evaded many questions at a Sept. 19 congressional hearing that focused on the Department of Veterans’ Affairs consistent lack of response to committee members’ requests for information.

Mooney, assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs for the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), was the sole witness at the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing attended by The American Legion.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., called Mooney a "very smart political operative" who would "like us to believe today that you are just incredibly incompetent." Coffman accused Mooney of "systematically covering up information" that is embarrassing to VA. He complained that VA has yet to provide him with results of an internal mental-health survey that were requested last February. He asked Mooney why the survey results weren’t provided.

"I think I will go back and check on that, and find out the status of it," Mooney said. When asked another question about when a VA report on medical facilities in South Carolina would be provided (it was requested last March), Mooney said, "Congressman, I will look into that request for you."

Coffman said it was an "affront to the men and women who have sacrificed so much for this country, who have worn the uniform for this country, that you’re in this position. It’s also, in my view, an embarrassment to (VA Secretary) Shinseki – who has served this country honorably for over 30 years in the United States Army – to have a political operative like you in this critical position engaging in this systematic cover-up on information that is embarrassing to the VA, about the mistreatment of the veterans who serve this country. I just think it’s extraordinary.

"And you are not who you appear to be today, this bumbling idiot, this incompetent manager. I know what you’re engaged in, and it’s wrong."

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kans., was also clearly irritated by Mooney.

"How do you decide which information requests to simply ignore?," Huelskamp asked Mooney, who replied, "Requests are not ignored, Congressman."

Huelskamp then asked for an explanation as to why he has been waiting 52 weeks for VA to answer a request for information on how much money was spent on the 2011 Golden Games. "Congressman, I know that issue, that correspondence, is being worked with in the agency and there will be a response forthcoming," Mooney said.

Pressing Mooney for an explanation as to why it takes 52 weeks to answer a simple question, Huelskamp said, "I’m just trying to get some insight of why you will ignore a very basic budget question.... I just wish you’d admit to the committee why you’re refusing to answer that question."

It has been 100 days since the committee asked VA several questions about the security of the department’s data, a circumstance that led to the following exchange:

Huelskamp: "Is that something you can ignore for a hundred days?"

Mooney: "Congressman, we will work to get you a response to your request. I understand and hear your frustration."

Huelskamp: "Do you not know the reason why you waited a hundred days? Or you’re just not willing to share that with the entire committee? I not only want a response, I want to know why you’re ignoring the issue. Twenty million veterans have their private health-care information breached ... and no response. No answer. My constituents want to know. They are shocked and outraged by this occurrence, and it continues to grow.... So your response is ‘We’ll get to you … we’ll get to that’?"

Mooney: "Congressman, we will get you an answer to your...."

Huelskamp: "But can you explain why you won’t answer the question, for a hundred days or 52 weeks? We’ve been trying to talk about, ‘What’s the reason for this?’ I don’t understand how you can be in charge of a shop that can wait 52 weeks on something – basic budget matters – or a hundred days on something as critical as private, personal, medical information breached by potentially nine foreign agents in numerous countries. And no response. Do you know the answer to that and just can’t share that here?

Mooney: "Congressman, I think as I mentioned earlier, my office does not manage correspondence. I am happy to take your request back."

Huelskamp: "This is an information request. It came from the committee, it’s on the website, the public – the world knows you’re ignoring the question.... It’s the same old denial, and how can we work together? I mean, that’s your responsibility, the answer to these questions. And I guess you were sent here today to say, ‘We’ll get back to you on that’.... Can you tell me when you might answer those questions?"

Mooney: "Congressman, I understand. I hear your frustration. I’ll take back your concerns and we will get you a response."

Huelskamp: "So you don’t know the answer? I don’t care if you care about my frustrations. I really don’t care about that. I want an answer. Americans want answers. Will you answer that question today? Just say yes or no."

Mooney: "I’m sorry. I think I said, Congressman, we will get you a response to your questions."

Huelskamp: "When, is the question."

Mooney: "Soon. I will work to get it soon."

Huelskamp: "The answer is, no answer."

Mooney also faced a question from Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., about the deadly outbreak of Legionella bacteria at the VA medical center in Pittsburgh. On Jan. 18, the committee requested details of that outbreak from VA, but the media got answers to their questions before the committee did. Miller said that no emails had been received by VA on the Pittsburgh matter, and he asked Mooney if she knew why.

"I can say, in the case of Pittsburgh and the email documents, the request came in," Mooney said. "It was a rather large-scale data pull. The goal was to focus and scope down search terms, et cetera, with the committee – which we did – and the work is in process and ongoing, and the results should be forthcoming very soon."

Miller suggested that a search for the words "Legionella" and "death" would be "two pretty specific words that you could search pretty quickly." He told Mooney that his committee doesn’t request information for itself. "We’re asking on behalf of the veterans of this country. And every obstacle that the agency puts up in front of us prevents us from doing our job on oversight."

Earlier in the hearing, Rep. Mike Michaud, D-Maine, said the hearing "should send a clear signal that the status quo is unacceptable." While Mooney’s office must respond to a large number of information requests from Congress, the "high workload is not an excuse for the current situation, which has gone on since 2009 and which simply must change," he said.

The relationship between Congress and VA, Michaud said, must be built around three goals: customer service, timeliness and access.

Miller pointed out to Mooney that VA has delivered testimony to the committee in a timely manner (48 hours in advance) for only 11 of 21 hearings since April. "It seems that timely receipt of testimony is completely arbitrary."