No perjury prosecution over costly VA hospital

Posted at 11:38 PM, Jun 08, 2017
and last updated 2017-06-10 00:51:05-04

DENVER (AP) — The Justice Department has declined to prosecute two Veterans Affairs Department executives after lawmakers accused them of misleading Congress about massive cost overruns at a Denver-area VA hospital.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee asked for a perjury investigation last fall, claiming the executives repeatedly gave false testimony that masked serious problems with the hospital construction project.

The Justice Department told lawmakers in a May 19 letter that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Colorado released the letter to The Associated Press on Thursday.

The decision means no one has yet been fired or criminally charged since the cost of the hospital ballooned to nearly $1.7 billion, almost triple earlier estimates.

The VA has said everyone involved in the problems has retired or was transferred or demoted.

"What's happening to the taxpayers, they're getting the shaft," said JB Terrel, a Vietnam veteran. "I thought they'd at least press charges on somebody."

Terrel, like so many other veterans, wants someone held accountable. Last year, he was forced to pay out of pocket to get his infected tooth pulled, only to later find out the VA wouldn't reimburse him. He doesn't understand how they can overlook $1.7 billion.

"They can't even reimburse $204," Terrel said. "There's lots of veterans with problems trying to get reimbursed."

Terrel said he and other veterans are still waiting up to six months to get the care they need.

"I think it's actually gotten worse," Terrel said.

Congressman Mike Coffman released a statement Friday night saying: "I am deeply disappointed with the decision by the Justice Department for not prosecuting the VA leaders responsible for trying to coverup over a $1 billion in cost overruns by continually lying to members of Congress during investigative hearings. It will be impossible for Congress to perform its oversight responsibilities so long as key officials can knowingly give misleading testimony without facing any consequences whatsoever. I will not give up the fight to pursue justice for our veterans and for the American taxpayers until those responsible for these failures are held accountable."

The VA executives targeted by lawmakers were Glenn Haggstrom, then the top official in charge of construction projects, and Stella Fiotes, director of the VA’s Office of Construction and Facilities Management.

Neither returned phone messages seeking comment Thursday. VA spokesman Paul Sherbo said the agency had no comment.

Multiple investigations concluded that the VA bungled the project, providing insufficient oversight, approving lavish design elements, failing to get the designers and builders to agree, and trying to use a complicated form of construction contract that agency executives didn’t fully understand.

The VA’s inspector general, an internal watchdog, said last year that Haggstrom knew the project was veering toward huge cost overruns but didn’t tell lawmakers when he testified before Congress in 2013 and 2014. That prompted lawmakers to call for the perjury investigation of Haggstrom and Fiotes.

Coffman said he was disappointed in the Justice Department’s decision.

“I think that there is clear evidence that they intentionally misled Congress,” he said.

Committee chairman Phil Roe, a Republican from Tennessee, also expressed disappointment.

“It cannot be disputed that VA’s handling of this construction project was thoroughly mismanaged, and VA officials at the time decided not to provide Congress with an accurate picture of their failures,” he said.

Haggstrom retired from the VA in 2015, one day after he was interviewed under oath by VA officials about the problems. Fiotes is still at the department.