DENVER (AP) – The Veterans Affairs Department has no outside construction expert helping with its investigation into massive cost overruns at its new Denver hospital, according to congressional testimony and internal emails obtained by The Associated Press.
The disclosure prompted new questions from Congress about how thoroughly the VA will investigate why the price tag ballooned from $630 million to $1.73 billion.
“What value will this construction investigation have if the investigators don’t know about construction?” Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, asked in a written statement Tuesday.
“The fact that the investigative panel VA created to get to the root of the Denver construction disaster doesn’t include a single construction expert is absolutely indefensible,” the Florida Republican added.
Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican, said he has no confidence in the VA’s ability to investigate itself.
“The fact that they don’t have a single construction expert confirmed on their investigative board demonstrates a complete lack of commitment to accountability,” Coffman said in an email to the AP.
The VA is committed to determining the facts and “holding individuals accountable when appropriate,” department spokesman Paul Sherbo said.
Sherbo declined to reveal anything about the backgrounds of the three current members of the investigating panel, including whether they have construction expertise.
Internal VA emails obtained by the AP identified the other members as the deputy director of the VA Office of Accountability Review, an employee relations specialist with the Office of Accountability Review and the VA’s regional counsel in Denver.
None are from outside the agency.
An official not authorized to speak publicly but with access to the emails provided them to the AP on condition of anonymity.
The VA convened the investigating panel and launched the probe amid growing congressional anger over the hospital’s cost. A federal appeals panel ruled the VA had breached the construction contract because the project couldn’t be built as designed for the contract price.
The VA had to negotiate an interim contract with builder Kiewit-Turner to keep the project moving. Talks are underway on a new, long-term contract with Kiewit-Turner to complete the hospital.
The VA has promised to discipline those whom the investigation finds were responsible, but Coffman and other members of Congress are calling for firings. Coffman also wants to strip the VA of the authority to manage large construction projects.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told the House Veterans Affairs Committee last week that the department was trying to get approval for a construction expert from another federal agency for the panel.
“We have been unable to secure that at this point. In the meantime, we moved ahead with the (investigating board) based upon the resources that we had at our disposal,” he said.
Sherbo said the board has interviewed many witnesses under oath and will interview many more, but he declined to say how many because the investigation is still underway.
The internal emails obtained by the AP show the department asked the Navy in February to assign Joanna Krause, director of the Navy’s Medical Facilities Design Office, to join the investigation panel.
Sherbo declined to say why the VA asked the Navy for Krause’s help, instead of seeking someone from the Army Corps of Engineers, which has taken over day-to-day management of the Denver project.
As of last week, the VA was still awaiting a decision from the Navy, the emails said. Navy officials had no immediate comment Tuesday.
– By Dan Elliott, AP Writer
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