Frustrated by a “lack of transparency” by the Department of Veterans Affairs, the House Veterans Affairs Committee launched a new website this morning tracking VA failures “to respond to reporters’ requests for information or answer specific questions.”
The VA Honesty Project lists about 70 such cases, including a Tampa Tribune effort to find out information about the location of VA patient deaths as the result of delays in diagnosis and treatment.
“With 54 full-time public affairs employees, VA’s media avoidance strategy can’t be anything other than intentional,” said HVAC Committee Chairman Rep. Jeff Miller, (R-FL). “What’s worse, the tactic leaves the impression that department leaders think the same taxpayers who fund the department don’t deserve an explanation of VA’s conduct.”
The VA said working with the media is important in the agency’s mission to serve veterans, noting that it responds to thousands of media queries a year and communicates with veterans and others through social media.
“At the Department of Veterans Affairs, we strive to provide accurate and timely information as we communicate every day with America’s veterans, their families, their survivors, and the American people,” said VA spokeswoman Meagan Lutz. “We understand and respect the media’s important role, and we work to ensure veterans understand our commitment to provide them the services and benefits they have earned and deserve.”
The VA Honesty Project is “dedicated to showing America’s veterans, American taxpayers and department leaders how VA’s media avoidance strategy is doing the public an extreme disservice while damaging VA’s reputation in the process,” said Miller. “By keeping a running record of VA’s attempts to stonewall the press, we hope to convince the department to put a renewed focus on being responsive and transparent with the media so America’s veterans and taxpayers can get the answers they deserve.”
Veterans suffer when the VA fails to answer media inquiries, said Pete Hegseth, CEO of Concerned Veterans For America, a veteran’s advocacy organization.
“The harm is you have a totally unresponsive and unaccountable department,” said Hegseth. “The only way to fix a system is by exposing what is wrong and changing it. If you paper over it and say ‘no comment,’ how are reformers going to get in and change things?”
It’s not just the media getting shut out. Miller’s committee unsuccessfully asked for information about the location of the VA deaths last September.
“They also haven’t answered questions from congressional committees and members of congress,” said Hegseth. “How is that acceptable either?”
One of the instances cited by the committee involves The Tribune’s efforts to learn which facilities treated 19 veterans — including five from the VA service region made up mostly of Florida veterans — who died from gastrointestinal cancers as the result of delays.
On Jan. 31, TBO.com, the Tribune’s website, published a story about the deaths. When asked for comment about where those deaths occurred, VA officials declined to answer, saying that a Federal Freedom of Information Act request was required. The request was filed the same day and on March 18 it was denied.
The “VA may withhold information under Exemption 5 where the document or its content makes recommendations or expresses opinions about legal or policy matters during a decision-making process and the document is not the decision document or incorporated into the decision document,” VA FOIA Officer Wayne Welge wrote in his denial letter. “Additionally, as a matter of Federal policy, the agency must state an articulable, foreseeable harm to the agency or its activities that could occur as a result of release of the document or information.”
The Tribune is considering an appeal of that decision.
“This is just another example of the government’s increasingly misplaced use of the deliberative process privilege under the federal Freedom of Information Act,” said Gregg Thomas, a partner with Thomas & LoCicero, the law firm representing The Tribune. “That privilege does not protect the factual information we seek from mandatory disclosure. Also, the fact that only a single email message was found in response to the request seriously calls into question the adequacy of the government’s search for responsive records.”
Miller said his issue is one of accountability.
“Instead of coming clean about the situation and vowing to hold people accountable, VA is deliberately trying to withhold important information about the deaths from the press, and by extension the public,” said Miller. “This is an insult to the families of those who died as well as veterans seeking care at VA and the taxpayers who fund the department’s operations. When VA fails to provide the press and the public with basic information, the department should be prepared to answer for that failure. That’s what VA Honesty Project is all about.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story reported incorrectly that the Department of Veterans Affairs did not respond to requests for comment. The response is included here.