House Committee Votes to Subpoena VA Over Art Spending, Cost Overruns

Chairman: VA failed to account for at least $1.7 million in art spending over last six years

VA Medical Center
VA Medical Center in Florida / AP

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs voted to subpoena the Department of Veterans Affairs over its spending on lavish art pieces and an over-budget hospital construction project.

The committee voted Wednesday morning to issue a subpoena to VA Secretary Robert McDonald seeking documents related to the agency’s spending on artwork since fiscal 2010 and the $1.7 billion construction project for a Colorado VA hospital.

Rep. Jeff Miller (R., Fla.), who chairs the committee, said he sought art contracts related to the VA’s Palo Alto Health Care System more than a year ago, but that the VA made no attempt to respond to his request until he scheduled the Wednesday meeting. He described the agency’s response as "wholly incomplete."

"VA claims to have spent approximately $4.7 million on art nationwide from January 2010 to July 2016, yet the committee has already substantiated over $6.4 million spent during this period in the Palo Alto health care system alone, which is merely one health care system within VISN [Veterans Integrated Service Network] 21," Miller stated.

"The spending data that VA finally did provide even omits art purchases in the Palo Alto Health Care System that the committee has already substantiated."

For example, the total figure provided by the agency omitted a "Blue Eclipse" sculpture purchased for $250,000 as well as a "Harbor" sculpture that cost $220,000.

"Additionally, VA took it upon itself to omit amounts spent on site preparation for artwork installation, which amounts to millions of dollars in Palo Alto alone," Miller said. "I am confident that we are not receiving the whole picture from the department."

An aide told the Washington Free Beacon that the committee will issue the subpoena this afternoon and the VA will have three weeks to comply. Some Democrats on the committee, including ranking member Rep. Mark Takano (D., Calif.), objected to the motion to subpoena the VA.

The subpoena will also request information on the construction of a VA hospital in Aurora, Colorado. The cost of that project ballooned from roughly $604 million in 2011 to $1.7 billion last year. The VA has refused to release the findings of an administrative report on the hospital project, documentation that the committee has been seeking since March.

The VA issued a news release in March announcing that "no additional adverse personnel actions" would be taken as a result of the administrative review of the Denver-area project, but did not release documentation substantiating its conclusions.

Miller said Wednesday that the VA falsely claims to have provided the committee with documentation supporting the conclusions of the investigation, citing a letter sent by the agency to Congress last month.

"In this letter, VA lists 16 groups of documents that it has provided, yet most are either congressionally mandated or required for some other purpose, or in one case—an advertising contract—entirely unrelated to the AIB [administrative investigation board]," Miller said. "Further, VA outright stated in that letter that it ‘does not intend to release’ certain evidentiary documentation essentially relying on a privilege that it is entirely within the authority of this committee to accept or reject."

"We will not accept VA trying to pull the wool over the eyes of this committee and the American people for poor decision making and waste of funds made on the part of the department," Miller said.

The VA inspector general has initiated an investigation into the Aurora facility construction project, but it has not yet been completed and released.

In response to a request for comment, a VA spokeswoman provided the Aug. 19 letter the VA sent to Congress responding to its request for material related to the agency’s administrative review of the Aurora project.

VA spokeswoman Walinda West also told the Free Beacon that the agency is "developing a national art policy to include commissioned artwork."

"While we must be stewards of taxpayer dollars, we also know that providing comprehensive health care for patients goes beyond just offering the most advanced medical treatments. Artwork is one of the many facets that create a healing environment for our nation’s veterans," West said.

Miller previously threatened to subpoena the agency over its art spending after a joint investigation by Open the Books and COX Media found that the VA spent $20 million on high-end art purchases over the last decade, including $16 million spent during the Obama administration alone.

During the same time period, veterans languished on secret wait lists kept by VA employees to conceal long wait times. Some veterans died waiting for health care at VA hospitals.

The committee’s Wednesday meeting took place ahead of a full committee hearing on the future of the VA health care system, which evaluated recommendations for VA reform issued by an independent commission in July.