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Watchdog: Accountability

Veterans Affairs issued 'gag order' and engaged in criminal cover-ups, lawmakers say

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A Department of Veterans Affairs memo that prohibits top administrators from answering questions from members of Congress, the media or veterans' groups is being called a “gag order” meant to cover up agency wrongdoing by a Kansas congressman.

Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, backed the charge by releasing the June 4 e-mail from Janet Murphy, acting deputy under secretary for health at VA, to dozens of top-tier officials nationwide instructing them not to talk to outsiders, including members of local congressional delegations.

“Please immediately stand down on any further communications with stakeholders, delegation members and others regarding the Access Audit, Wait Lists and Accelerating Care Initiative,” Murphy’s email states.

The email unearthed by Huelskamp comes as CNN is reporting two Pennsylvania congressmen, a Republican and a Democrat, claim VA officials in Pittsburgh tried to derail their efforts to find out about veterans who spent years on improper waiting lists without getting care.

Amid the mounting reports that members of Congress are being stonewalled and misled, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, called on acting VA Secretary Sloan Gibson to fire anyone responsible.

“Interfering with Congress’ constitutionally mandated oversight responsibility is not just wrong, it’s against the law,” Miller said.

Miller added Gibson needs to “send a clear and powerful message that criminal behavior will not be tolerated within VA’s ranks. The only way to do this is by immediately firing anyone who directed VA officials not to speak with members of Congress.”

Reports of falsified records to hide long waits for care are being investigated by the VA inspector general and the agency's own internal review team. FBI Director James Comey also said Wednesday that his office has opened a criminal investigation of the Phoenix VA medical center, where reports of a “secret” waiting list surfaced in April.

The Phoenix facility was the flashpoint for the latest round of investigations.

The IG has already confirmed “systemic” efforts nationwide to falsify patient waiting lists to make it appear veterans were receiving treatment within the timelines set by VA policy. The internal VA audit also verified widespread falsification of patient wait times, often under the orders of supervisors.

The fallout from the IG's interim report issued last month led to the resignation of then-Secretary Eric Shinseki on May 30. Gibson is Shinseki's temporary replacement.

Huelskamp said Murphy’s memo is a sign of a cover-up inside the VA.

“While the VA leadership was promising transparency, they were actually issuing a nationwide gag order to prevent further investigation of the growing VA scandal,” said Huelskamp, a member of the House veterans’ committee. “Instead of gag orders and cover-ups, it’s time that every VA administrator come clean with what they know.”

Huelskamp publicly raised the issue of an agency-wide gag order during a veterans' committee meeting Monday, when he asked Philip Matkovsky, assistant deputy under secretary for health at VA, whether such an edict would be appropriate.

Matkovsky said he was unaware of any orders prohibiting regional or local officials from talking to members of Congress or the news media.

Huelskamp said he went to the VA health center in Wichita earlier this month after hearing reports of secret waiting lists being kept there to hide backlogs in care. He was informed by local officials that they had been instructed not to talk.

They showed Huelskamp a copy of the Murphy email, but did not provide him a copy at the time, he said, adding he was provided a copy Tuesday afternoon.

Shortly after Huelskamp’s June 4 visit, Murphy sent out another message to top administrators stating communication with members of Congress, the media, veterans groups and state and local officials "remains a top priority." But it did not authorize the staff to answer their questions.

Huelskamp confronted Matkovsky about the order during the hearing Monday.

“Do you think that helps build trust?” Huelskamp asked.

“It certainly does not,” Matkovsky replied.

Matkovsky, who was under oath for his testimony, said that while he was not aware of such an email, it is possible one was sent out. His name does not appear on the list of recipients.

Huelskamp’s drive to Wichita was triggered by conflicting reports about the number of patients on secret waiting lists there.

On May 30, Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, was told during a visit to the facility that there were no patients on unauthorized waiting lists, according to Huelskamp.

Three hours later, the facility issued a letter acknowledging nine veterans on the list. By June 4, Huelskamp heard media reports there were 385, which prompted him to drive to Wichita.

An official report from VA issued Monday acknowledged 104 patients on improper waiting lists.

Walinda West, a VA spokeswoman, issued a statement Wednesday describing the Murphy memo as "a miscommunication" and apologizing for any confusion.The statement was labeled "not for attribution," but West later asked the Washington Examiner to quote her by name.

CNN reported Wednesday that Pennsylvania Reps. Tim Murphy, a Republican, and Mike Doyle, a Democrat, got a similar runaround.

Murphy received an unsolicited phone call May 28 from Terry Gerigk Wolf, director of the Pittsburgh VA hospital, and her deputy, who told Murply an audit had been done and the facility “passed with flying colors.”

Murphy was skeptical, telling CNN he believed it was a “smokescreen.”

He contacted Doyle, who had been told by Wolf there were 700 patients waiting to be scheduled for medical appointments in Pittsburgh.

Murphy and Doyle then called Wolf, who said she was aware of the waiting list three weeks before, but had been instructed not to inform members of the state’s congressional delegation or she could be fired for disclosing the information, according to CNN.

Also Wednesday, the Blaze reported that Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., says she was misled by VA hospital officials who told her on Friday that employees responsible for falsifying patient wait lists “were no longer working at the VA.”

It turned out those employees were reassigned, not fired.

“I believe I was misled,” Roby said.

This story was originally posted at 5:35 p.m. June 11 and was updated 6:20 p.m. to add additional information.

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