WASHINGTON — From 2010 through 2014, the internal watchdog at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs issued more than 1,500 reports on the sprawling federal agency — each intended to investigate, improve or fact-check the VA.
But not a single one focused on the agency's unfinished hospital in Aurora, a $1.73 billion project that has obliterated its initial $328 million estimate by $1.4 billion and led one member of Congress to call it the biggest construction failure in VA history.
The lack of oversight comes in spite of the fact that the VA Office of Inspector General — which has an annual budget of about $126 million — has two units in Denver that conduct criminal investigations and do health care inspections.
The absence of an inquiry from the OIG also follows years of warnings about rising costs. Congress took notice as far back as 2006, and another federal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, sounded the alarm as early as 2009.
And, on at least two occasions, federal lawmakers asked the OIG to take a look at the Aurora project and were rebuffed.
According to OIG officials and letters between Congress and that office, the watchdog group refused to investigate the construction effort because of a legal battle between the VA and the project's prime contractor, Kiewit-Turner, that began in July 2013.
Responding to an August 2013 request for an investigation from U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora, a top OIG official wrote that it would be "inappropriate for the OIG to review this matter at this time" and that the office's involvement would be "duplicative."
The OIG took a similar tack after U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet in April 2014 also asked for an investigation. OIG officials began an inquiry — then stopped — because of concerns about interfering in the legal fight between the VA and Kiewit-Turner that was ongoing in the U.S. Civilian Board of Contract Appeals.
That the OIG declined to investigate the Aurora project because of a court battle is not unusual, said two other inspectors general. But if the OIG had gone forward anyway, that kind of action would be neither unprecedented nor prohibited.
And federal lawmakers said a lack of oversight from the VA inspector general is yet another reason the cost of the Aurora hospital spiraled out of control.
"A report from that office could have put the kind of pressure we needed on the VA to start listening to the rest of the world about the problems with the project," Bennet said in a statement.
The Colorado Democrat also said the VA itself was to blame for pursuing a "winner-take-all legal strategy" in its fight with Kiewit-Turner, as it "caused longer delays while the overruns increased, costing taxpayers more money."
With that case settled — against the VA — in December, OIG spokeswoman Joanne Moffett said the office would take a look.
"We are in the planning stage of an audit of the Denver construction project," she wrote.
But members of Congress said the effort would be too little, too late. The VA already has admitted it would cost $1.73 billion to build the hospital, with an additional $340 million to fill it with furniture, hospital beds and other medical equipment.
Critics say the OIG should have looked at the project long before the case was settled — either when Colorado lawmakers made the request in 2013 and 2014 or when other warnings popped up.
As a member of the House veterans committee, Coffman requested an investigation of the Aurora project in 2013 and specifically sought accountability for the problems.
"We request you identify the officials in the VA who should be held accountable for the project's many shortfalls," according to the letter from Coffman and fellow lawmaker U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz. , when the project was only $200 million over budget.
The letter to George Opfer, then the VA inspector general, identified four other specific requests: side-by-side comparisons of the before-and-after budgets on the project; a breakdown of change orders that caused the overruns; payments owed and made to contractor Kiewit-Turner for subcontracts; and the name and title of any VA official with authority to approve project decisions.
The committee got none of that.
Instead, it got a letter from deputy inspector general Richard Griffin, who wrote that any review would be "viewed by the VA and the contractor as interfering in the litigation" because each party would be answering to the board as well as investigators.
Griffin said his office would "monitor" the case and "if we determine that it is appropriate for the OIG to review issues associated with this project, we will initiate a review."
Two members of the Association of Inspectors General said the actions taken by the OIG were not uncommon.
Stephen Street, president of the group and the inspector general for Louisiana, said one concern is that an inspector general could get dragged into the legal proceedings and face the risk that investigators could have their records subpoenaed, which would force the office to spend time defending its independence.
Still, Street said there was no "cookie-cutter approach."
Patrick Blanchard, who serves on the group's board of directors and as the inspector general of Cook County, Ill., said pending litigation was a "relevant" factor in whether an inspector general should pursue a case but that litigation " would never serve as an absolute bar against it."
"It's a case-by-case situation," he said.
At least one top VA official wants the OIG to do more. In a letter sent last week to Congress, VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson asked permission to route an extra $15 million to the inspector general to "provide better oversight of VA operations."
Me Here.......When no one is watching, the money goes right down the drain. Sadly, the VA does even seem to care about the Veterans. We get white elephants instead of medical care.