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A New Law Will Make It Harder to Escape Investigation By Leaving Federal Service

by Nextgov
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Former employees of the Veterans Affairs Department are now subject to subpoenas by the agency’s inspector general after President Biden on Tuesday signed into law a measure granting the authority.

The 2021 Strengthening Oversight for Veterans Act (S. 2687), which sailed through both chambers of Congress with nearly unanimous approval, would also apply to former contractors with the department. The measure sought to bring VA in line with other federal agencies with large health care workforces, namely the departments of Defense and Health and Human Services. The bill’s passage follows several high-profile cases in which the IG lamented not being able to fully investigate fraud or malfeasance due to limits of power, including one case that led to a VA nurse pleading guilty to seven counts of murder.

“We’ve got to see to it that the VA Office of Inspector General has the tools to provide additional oversight over the department on behalf of veterans and taxpayers,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., who chairs the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee and introduced the bill.

The IG had implored Congress to pass the bill, calling it vital to his office’s investigations while recognizing the “gravity” of the new authority and promising to use it “prudently and with appropriate controls.”

“This bill would give OIG personnel an important tool to conduct comprehensive and effective oversight of VA’s activities and potential harm to veterans and VA employees, which is why the OIG strongly supports its passage,” Christopher Wilber, counselor to the IG, told Congress last year. “Testimonial subpoena authority strengthens the OIG’s ability to gather information critical to allowing VA to hold responsible individuals accountable.”

Other investigations Wilbert highlighted as insufficient due to the IG’s lack of subpoena authority included those into a radiologist in North Carolina who provided deficient care, a facility in Mississippi that allowed unlicensed doctors to practice and employees who improperly released procurement information to potential contractors. In all cases, key targets of the probes stepped down while the IG was conducting its work, leaving significant gaps in the final reports.

“This bill will dramatically improve oversight at the VA by eliminating a longstanding loophole that allows VA employees to escape independent oversight by simply resigning from their post,” Liz Hempowicz, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, said earlier this year. “This is not a reform in search of a problem, but a well thought through solution to an obvious problem.”

Under the new law, the IG will be able to enforce its subpoena through any district court in the country. The Justice Department can block a potential VA subpoena if it interferes with its own ongoing investigation.

The bill was one of nine veterans measures Biden signed into law on Tuesday and specifically part of a package he said would help ensure the success for veterans’ futures.

The measure will “strengthen the oversight of the VA’s activities so veterans get the care they deserve,” Biden said.

The IG has also endorsed the VA IG Training Act (S. 2431), which would require the department to train its employees on reporting wrongdoing to the office, as well as responding to its requests and otherwise cooperating with it. VA Secretary Denis McDonough ordered the training last year, but the IG called for it to be codified and made permanent. The IG noted previous occasions in which severe misconduct went unreported because employees misunderstood the process of working with his office. The House easily passed the bill last month, but the Senate has only advanced it past the committee stage.

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