(U.S. Senate) – Ranking Member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Jon Tester is leading the fight to protect millions of veterans from political agendas threatening the VA’s ability to deliver health care and benefits.
Following reports of political appointees pushing partisan agendas at the VA, Tester called on VA Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke to stop reassigning and removing career civil servants without political ties. Tester is now leading the call for an investigation into political interference in the VA’s transparency processes.
Tester today requested an investigation during a one-on-one meeting with VA Inspector General Mike Missal. Missal leads the independent watchdog that holds the VA accountable to veterans and taxpayers. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) joined Tester in calling for these investigations.
“Recent events at the VA have raised questions about the extent of political influence that exists over what should be nonpolitical and nonpartisan processes,” the Senators wrote to Missal. “One of these processes is the review of documents requested through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) process. We are interested in getting an assessment of the role that political appointees play in the FOIA process, what types of oversight exist to ensure employees are providing all responsive material, and who makes determinations about what is or is not responsive to a request, and therefore, what is provided.”
The Senators also pushed O’Rourke to answer questions about how FOIA requests are being handled under his temporary leadership.
“As a Department that frequently highlights its transparency, the VA must also place a high priority on timely responses to FOIA requests from the media, veterans, and other citizens,” the Senators wrote. “Documents, emails from government servers, and other material that is responsive must be provided to the requestor, regardless of whether it is politically advantageous, embarrassing, or could shed light on errors or failures.
These requests come after the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee recently learned that political appointees have refused to turn over emails from their government accounts in response to FOIA requests.
FOIA requests ensure that the federal government is transparent to taxpayers. Veterans and their family members rely on FOIA requests to access medical records. In other cases, the media and other interested parties can use FOIA requests to get answers and information after their requests to the VA about policies and initiatives go unanswered.
Tester previously took VA Acting Secretary O’Rourke to task for punishing nonpartisan employees who refused to take a loyalty pledge.
Tester also successfully added a bipartisan amendment to the 2019 VA funding bill to protect the mission of the VA Inspector General after the VA refused to comply with Inspector General requests for information.