Federal investigators could force former Veterans Affairs employees to testify about possible wrongdoing and waste within the department even after they leave their government jobs under legislation expected to be signed into law in coming days.
The Strengthening Oversight for Veterans Act, which passed out of the Senate in early April and was finalized by the House this week, would grant the VA Office of Inspector General subpoena authority over former VA staffers and former contractor personnel who worked for the department.
In a statement, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, D-Mont., called the move critical to strengthen oversight within VA.
When the legislation was introduced last fall, leaders at the VA Inspector General’s Office noted that watchdog officials at the Defense Department already have the authority to subpoena their own former employees during investigations. Giving VA IG staff the same authority would put them on par with their peers.
Christopher Wilber, counselor to the VA inspector general, said lack of that power has frustrated several recent investigations where former department workers simply refused to talk to IG officials about problems or crimes while they worked for VA.
In the most egregious case, a key figure involved in the investigation into a series of patient murders at the Clarksville VA Medical Center in West Virginia five years ago stepped down from their department job amid the inspector general’s inquiries.
“Testimonial subpoena authority would be important to our ability to then reach out to someone like that, require them to talk to us,” he said.
“This isn’t a criminal investigation of that person; this isn’t about putting that person in jail. This is about getting critical information from that person so that we understand what happened, the root causes of the problem … and allow us to make recommendations to the department on how to fix it.”
Wilber detailed several other instances where investigations were stymied by a sudden resignation or departure, with no power to compel those individuals to give information to officials after they left VA.
In a statement, Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., a sponsor of the bill, said the change will allow “more thorough investigations [and] help ensure accountability.”
White House officials have not said when President Joe Biden may sign the measure into law, but have not offered any public objections to the bill.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.