Think of it as the tale of two scandals.
In the last week, Congress slapped a pair of Obama administration cabinet officials with subpoenas. The first was handed to Secretary of State John Kerry, ordering him to appear before the House Oversight Committee and testify about the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The second came Thursday when the House Veterans Affairs Committee unanimously voted to subpoena Eric Shinseki, the secretary of veterans affairs, in effort to obtain documents related to allegations that delays in care at an Arizona facility resulted in the deaths of some 40 former service members.
It’s extremely unusual to subpoena one cabinet secretary, let alone two. But what may be most unusual is that the same Democrats who dismissed the Kerry subpoena as the latest move in a politically-motivated and partisan witch hunt are bucking their own party and strongly supporting the Shinseki subpoena.
Supporting military veterans is always a winner politically. In this case, though, lawmakers are also responding to several reports in recent weeks that appear to bolster the claims of the department’s critics that the episode in Arizona may be part of a wider pattern of mismanagement and negligence in providing healthcare to American veterans. According to a December report authored by the VA’s own investigators, employees at a veterans clinic in Colorado were instructed to falsify medical records in order to lower the facility’s reported wait time to receive an appointment. Another VA report linked the deaths of 23 former service members to delays in endoscopy screenings.
Unlike Benghazi, this time around Republicans find themselves with willing allies across the aisle. "Unfortunately, I do not believe the VA has provided sufficient answers to our legitimate questions which is why I supported the serious next step of issuing a subpoena," Rep. Julia Brownley, a California Democrat and a member of the House Veteran Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "Furthermore, I am deeply concerned that these practices may be more pervasive within the VA medical system."
Having joined the administration in January 2009, Shinseki has long-standing ties to the Obama administration, and it will be difficult for the retired four-star Army general to shrug off allegations of mismanagement as inherited problems. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal Tuesday, Shinseki described himself as an embattled reformer within a department with entrenched problems. "I serve at the pleasure of the president," he said in response to whether he might resign over the allegations. "I signed on to make some changes, I have work to do."
The subpoena issued Thursday focuses on a decision by a VA facility in Phoenix to destroy what department officials have described as an interim wait list that was used while the facility was transitioning to a new wait system. VA officials have told the House Veterans Affairs Committee that they believe this list may be the "secret" wait list that CNN reported was used to create the appearance of shorter wait times. That interim list was apparently destroyed, and the committee would like to find out why.
A committee staffer, speaking to Foreign Policy on background to preserve his relationship with the department, said he wasn’t sure which account to believe and said that the subpoena was issued in part to get to the bottom of the matter. In a letter sent Wednesday, Shinseki attempted to address the committee’s concerns about the list, arguing that it was well within department policy to destroy such material. But the committee didn’t find that response sufficient and proceeded to issue the subpoena.
In response to that surprisingly confrontational move, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced Thursday that it will conduct "a national face-to-face audit" at all its clinics. "Our most important mission is to make sure veterans know VA is here to care for them and provide the high quality care and benefits they have earned and deserve," the department said in a statement.
When asked by Foreign Policy to respond to concerns that the Arizona allegations are emblematic of the care offered by the VA system, the department said in a statement that it thoroughly investigates claims of misconduct and that it has made important progress in improving care. "If the VA Office of Inspector General’s ongoing investigation substantiates allegations of employee misconduct, swift and appropriate action will be taken," the department said, referring to an ongoing investigation of the Arizona facility. "Veterans deserve to have full faith in their VA care."
But on Capitol Hill, frustration is mounting with both Shinseki and his department. While the department has come under heavy fire since CNN aired the allegations about delays in care at the Phoenix facility and the alleged use of a secret waiting list used to create the appearance of reduced wait times, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee have long been badgering the department for information about other allegations of misconduct only to be, in their opinion, stonewalled. The committee has gone so far as to set up a website devoted to tracking outstanding requests for information.
Discontent with the department is also mounting among veterans groups. This week, the American Legion, one influential such group, called on Shinseki and two other VA officials to resign, the first time the group has called on a public official to step down since 1978. When the Legion’s commander, Daniel Dellinger, asked Shinseki why he hadn’t fired anyone despite a long history of problems within the department, Shinseki once more emphasized his role as a reformer. "He said he didn’t need to fire anyone; he needed to retrain them," Dellinger said, recalling his conversation with Shinseki to the New York Times. "That was a red flag."
When asked whether the Legion agrees that allegations about the Arizona facility are part of a broader pattern of VA failings, a spokesman for the group forwarded a list of 28 alleged instances of problems and a lack of accountability at VA medical facilities nationwide. Beyond lapses in care, the examples provided by the Legion reveal a pattern of department officials receiving bonuses despite overseeing increases in backlogs of medical claims. One example cited by Marty Callaghan, the spokesman: "Diana Rubens, the VA executive in charge of the nearly 60 offices that process disability benefits compensation claims, collected almost $60,000 in bonuses while presiding over a near seven-fold increase in backlogged claims."
Shinseki will reportedly testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 15. Expect fireworks.