Watchdog group contests subpoena for whistleblower info on VA scandal

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A First Amendment battle is brewing between the Department of Veterans Affairs’ inspector general and a good-government group that refuses to hand over whistleblower information about the VA scheduling scandal.

The Project On Government Oversight sent a letter to Acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin on Tuesday refusing to comply with a subpoena for records that the organization received about wait times and appointment booking at VA hospitals.

POGO said it has a constitutional right to withhold the materials and protect its sources.”For POGO to effectively operate as a government watchdog, we must assure our sources that their identities will not be revealed,” the group said.


Acting VA Inspector General Richard Griffin testifies before the House Veterans Affairs Committee on June 9. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Griffin said he can order the documents to be turned over under the Inspector General Act of 1978. “The inspector general is authorized to conduct and supervise audits and investigations for the detection and prevention of fraud and abuse” at the VA, he wrote in the subpoena.

In its response, POGO argued that federal courts have said the government must exhaust all other methods of obtaining the desired information before resorting to a subpoena.

The group also pointed to the landmark 1972 Supreme Court decision in Branzburg v. Hayes. In that case, the high court ruled 5 to 4 that reporters have no constitutional protection against subpoenas, but Justice Lewis Powell, who was part of the majority, emphasized the “limited nature of the court’s holding.”

MORE: Supreme Court refuses to take reporter’s case on revealing source

Powell wrote in a concurring opinion that the court “does not hold that newsmen, subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury, are without constitutional rights with respect to the gathering of news or in safeguarding their sources.”

The inspector general’s office said it is reviewing POGO’s response, but it declined to otherwise comment about the group’s stance toward the subpoena.

Follow Josh Hicks on TwitterFacebook or Google+. Connect by e-mail at  josh.hicks(at)washpost.comVisit The Federal Eye and The Fed Page for more federal news. Submit news tips and suggestions to federalworker@washpost.com.

Josh Hicks covers the federal government and anchors the Federal Eye blog. He reported for newspapers in the Detroit and Seattle suburbs before joining the Post as a contributor to Glenn Kessler’s Fact Checker blog in 2011.
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