In the five weeks since an explosive memo from the top procurement official at Veterans Affairs went public, the major contracting abuses the document alleged are pervasive throughout the agency have angered veterans and members of Congress.
But Secretary Robert McDonald, to whom Jan R. Frye addressed a 35-page letter in March accusing VA of running afoul of federal acquisition laws, has said publicly only that he has referred Frye’s concerns to the inspector general’s office. And that means it could be months before a full investigation is done.
Apparently frustrated with the slow pace of the investigation, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) has written to McDonald to ask what he is doing to change the practices Frye brought to light, among them the widespread use of purchase cards — usually meant as a convenience for minor purchases of up to $3,000 but used routinely to buy billions of dollars worth of medical supplies without contracts.
“Prior to your confirmation, you pledged to me that you would clean up the VA,” Grassley wrote to McDonald on June 19. “Unfortunately, time and again, news reports highlight instances that illustrate a continuing culture of chaos at the VA that fails our veterans.”
Grassley is a longtime advocate for whistleblowers. Frye, deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics, is an unusual whistleblower in that he is a senior leader at the agency he’s accusing of mismanagement. But he certainly has blown a whistle.
Grassley’s letter follows two hearings held by the House Veterans Affairs Committee, during which Frye testified about a culture of “lawlessness and chaos” at the Veterans Health Administration, the health-care system for 8.7 million veterans. VA senior leaders were berated by Democrats and Republicans and hard-pressed to explain whether they are making changes to put contracts in place for medical supplies and services for veterans who are served by private doctors.
VA officials are urging Congress to pass legislation that would allow an expedited form of purchasing care for veterans who need to go outside the VA system, allowing the use of agreements other than those required by federal acquisition regulations.
The senator asked McDonald to respond by July 6 to seven detailed questions about Frye’s allegations:
1. In regard to outside hospital and health-care providers that offer medical care for veterans that the agency cannot provide, such as specialized tests or surgeries, why did the VA not seek competitive bidding and proper contracts before purchasing those services?
2. Are you currently investigating Mr. Frye’s claims that the VA spends $6 billion per year in violation of federal contracting rules? If so, when did the investigation begin and how many employees are assigned to the investigation? If not, please explain.
3. What actions has the VA taken, or is it currently taking, to remedy these alleged violations of the federal acquisition regulations?
4. What are you going to do to ensure that VA employees comply with federal contracting laws, engage in proper bidding, and enter into formal contracts for products and services?
5. For those employees who have broken federal contracting laws, improperly spent taxpayer money, and otherwise acted unethically, what type of disciplinary action will you take against them? If you have already taken disciplinary action against those employees, please explain what steps have been taken.
6. Mr. Frye noted that “[t]here are five career SES members subordinate to the CFO who are aware of [the discrepancy between authorized spending on medical care and supplies and unauthorized spending] but have done nothing to mitigate them. In fact, when I recently brought these issues to their attention they were demonstrably unhappy I broached the subject.” Have you identified and spoken with the SES personnel? If so, what did you conclude? If not, will you?
7. Mr. Frye noted that “no persons were held accountable for these violations of law. The matters were simply swept under the rug, and senior VA leadership directed my office to approve an ‘institutional ratification’ for thousands of unauthorized commitments worth hundreds of millions of dollars.” What steps will you take, or have you already taken, to identify leadership failure and institute a fix?
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