VA secretary and inspector general clash over investigations

  • 25 June 2018
  • NormanL

The Department of Veterans Affairs has been a source of problems, embarrassments, and outright scandal, for decades. The Trump administration has attempted to clean up the agency, but as an item in Stars and Stripes notes, there's a new problem at the VA:

The acting secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs and the agency’s inspector general are engaged in a power struggle, each accusing the other of withholding access to information and impeding VA oversight.

The rift was revealed this week when Inspector General Michael Missal sought help from Congress to obtain information that he argues VA leaders have been unlawfully withholding for months.

Missal wrote to lawmakers Monday that the VA is inappropriately refusing to release hundreds of employee complaints submitted to the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection – information he’s been attempting to get since November.

The struggle sparked a larger debate between Missal and acting VA Secretary Peter O’Rourke over the responsibilities of an inspector general. In letters sent back and forth during the past two weeks, Missal accused O’Rourke of working to hinder his oversight duties. O’Rourke lambasted Missal, describing him and his staff as unprofessional, biased and reckless.

At the conclusion of a letter sent June 11, O’Rourke challenged Missal’s role as an independent watchdog.

“You… appear to misunderstand the independent nature of your role and operate as a completely unfettered, autonomous agency,” O’Rourke wrote. “You are reminded that OIG is loosely tethered to VA, and in your specific case as the VA inspector general, I am your immediate supervisor. You are directed to act accordingly.”

Acting Secretary O'Rourke is exactly, categorically, wrong. As our friends at the Cause of Action Institute write:

The Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE) explains that “[w]hile by law, IG’s are under the general supervision of the agency head or deputy, neither the agency head nor the deputy can prevent or prohibit an IG from conducting an audit or investigation. The VA’s own Functional Organization Manual states that the VA IG is “an independent oversight entity” that “[h]as authority to inquire into all VA programs and activities.”

Simply put, an IG is an independent entity that operates separately from the oversight of any official within the agency it oversees. The independent authority of the IG ensures that investigators can conduct their work without fear of reprisal.

We're sure the VA, and Mr. O'Rourke, isn't eager to have the Inspector General looking into complaints, "about abuses of authority and wasted funds, to whistleblower retaliation and risks to safety." Federal agencies are rarely happy to have their failures, missteps, and blunders exposed.

But the law does not give Mr. O'Rourke the right, let alone the authority, to stand in the IG's way. If there's something to be investigated - and considering this is the VA, there always will be -- O'Rourke should step aside and let the IG do its job. If he doesn't, expect Congress to force him out of the way.