Justice Department officials have declined to pursue dozens of criminal investigations into employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs who allegedly participated in a national effort to cover up long delays in care by creating fake patient waiting lists.
As of Dec. 3, the Justice Department has refused to pursue any charges in 46 of 55 cases referred by the VA's own inspector general. Nine cases are still pending, according to a letter from Rep. Jeff Miller, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, to Attorney General Loretta Lynch that was obtained by the Washington Examiner.
Despite the widespread attention VA officials have received for manipulating patient wait times, the Justice Department has acknowledged opening just one criminal investigation into a practice that took place at 110 VA facilities across the country.
FBI Director James Comey told Congress last year that the law enforcement agency's Phoenix office had opened a criminal probe of allegations made against officials at the Phoenix VA hospital.
However, during a House Judiciary Committee hearing last month, Lynch could not answer questions from Rep. Mimi Walters, R-Calif., about the status of that investigation or whether any others had been opened. Lynch vowed during that hearing to have her staff provide Walters with information about the investigation.
A month later, Justice Department staff did respond to Walters' questions. The officials requested Walters accept an "informal phone call" rather than a formal response, then refused to answer any questions about the scope of the agency's work with the VA.
"I am at a loss as to why [the Justice Department] required a month to determine that it was unable to provide any answers to these questions," Walters wrote in a Dec. 17 letter to Lynch.
"It is my concern that [the Justice Department] intentionally induced my office to participate in an informal discussion for the sole purpose of obstructing legitimate congressional oversight beyond the public's purview," she added.
The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment about why it could not answer Walters' questions and whether it had ever pursued criminal charges against any VA officials involved in the wait-time scandal.
Although the Justice Department appears to have taken minimal, if any, action against VA employees accused by the agency's watchdog of criminal wrongdoing, VA leaders are now attempting to blame their own inability to discipline employees on non-existent Justice Department investigations.
Undersecretary David Shulkin repeated a VA argument to this effect earlier this month when he told Congress the VA could not punish Phoenix VA employees, despite overwhelming evidence they had retaliated against whistleblowers and covered up wrongdoing, because the agency was waiting on the Justice Department to wrap up its own probe.
During a Dec. 14 hearing before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, Shulkin testified that the Justice Department was blocking VA officials from interviewing a pair of witnesses who have been on paid leave for more than a year.
"[Veteran Health Administration's] efforts to issue disciplinary actions in Phoenix and to resolve the administrative leave status of two employees have been delayed by our inability to interview witnesses who have not been cleared by the U.S. Attorney's Office," Shulkin said.
The two employees in question, Lance Robinson and Brad Curry of the Phoenix VA system, have been collecting a government salary while doing no work since May 2014, when they were placed on leave for their role in the patient wait-time scandal.
But an email from an official in the VA's Office of Inspector General to the House VA Committee suggested Shulkin's reasoning was false.
"These statements are not accurate," the IG staffer wrote in the email to congressional investigators, which was obtained by the Examiner.
"As of January 2015, the VA OIG did not place any restrictions on VA conducting its own investigation," the email continued.
What's more, the VA sent a letter to the inspector general in November blaming its supposed inability to discipline Phoenix officials on "our lack of success in securing requested evidence from your office over the last several months."
The watchdog attorney pointed out that the VA had not actually asked the inspector general for any records since an exchange in January, during which the watchdog's office had provided a batch of documents, according to an email from the inspector general's counselor to the VA official.
The VA never responded.
"Given these facts, we don't understand VA's assertions that they have been unable to investigate and hold these employees accountable because of the VA OIG's investigation or the VA OIG's failure to timely response [sic] to requests for records," the inspector general staffer wrote to the House VA Committee on Dec. 16.
For all of the VA's promises to improve accountability at the agency in the wake of the national wait-time scandal, only three officials were ever fired for their role in the massive cover-up.
A spokeswoman for the Senate VA Committee did not respond to a request for comment about whether the panel planned to seek clarification from Shulkin about the apparent contradiction in his congressional testimony.