With all the political news crowding out other coverage, one story that slipped by our desk deserves some attention - even if we are a bit late. We're speaking of the report issued a little over a week ago from the U.S. Inspector General's Office that blasted Veterans Administration in Cleveland. Specifically, the IG faulted the decision to merge the VA's Wade Park and Brecksville medical campuses. The consolidation was part of a massive VA construction project that the federal government's watchdog agency says resulted in less space, jeopardized the security of employees and patients, and will result in $500 million in unnecessary leasing expense over the next two decades.
Federal scrutiny began last year when the project's private contractor, Michael Forlani, was indicted by a grand jury and accused of corruption tied to the VA project and other deals.
This week ideastream's Brian Bull caught up with Maureen Regan, counselor to the Inspector General for the Department of Veterans Affairs. She says the VA has only itself to blame for what the IG calls "poor decisions".
Regan: “They didn’t look back, they didn’t do a proper analysis of cost, they did not look for other options, as “Do we need an administrative building there? Or could it be some place else at a better cost? Could we renovate part of the Brecksville campus, not the whole thing?” Those things I believe VA officials were responsible for the excessive cost. They were sort of at the mercy of Mr. Forlani’s company, Veterans Development, by the time everything was signed.”
Bull: Who’s the winner here, and who lost out?
Regan: “The winner…Veterans Development and Mr. Forlani. The loser? The taxpayers and the veterans. Because cost savings is what goes into better care for veterans, you have more services you can offer, because you have more resources.”
Bull: Space, security, cost, maintenance, and energy were just some of the issues raised with this merger. And now by your projections it’s going to cost taxpayers almost $500 million over the next two decades. Who approved this project, and where did they get their money from?
Regan: “Well, VA approved the project, the money came from appropriations. They would put this type of project into their appropriations in order to pay this. VA would put costs of this in a request to Congress, then they would pay this out of appropriations they get each fiscal year.”
Bull: Do taxpayers have any recourse right now, or are they simply stuck with the bill?
Regan: “We had asked VA to look at this early on. That was one of the intents of our first meeting when Mr. Forlani was indicted. We’re not in a position to provide legal conclusions as to whether or not they can cancel the agreement or anything else.”
Bull: How would you like this report to be used?
Regan: “I believe the recommendations in report were our recommendations to the department of things to look at both now and in the future. Now some things have changed a bit, as the Enhanced Use Lease authority -- statutory authority -- expired December 31st 2011. It’s been reinstated to a certain degree, but some of the things we saw in this particular Enhanced Use Lease, can’t take place in the future, namely because they can no longer take in kind consideration, it has to be in cash. So that would limit some of the problems that we saw.
“It’s possible that Congress would look at the report, and look at other changes, legislation they may need to protect the taxpayer in the future. And as far as VA’s concerned, we were hoping that they would use the information either to cancel the agreement or to renegotiate parts of the agreement to make it more cost effective.”
Bull: I really appreciate your time and information, thank you.
Regan: “Thanks! `Kay, bye.”
Bull: Alright, bye.
Veterans Administration officials in Cleveland did not respond to ideastream's efforts to discuss the IG report with them. However, The Plain Dealer quotes a spokeswoman saying the Inspector General's report contained miscalculations and inaccuracies and that the VA still believes veterans are better served by the consolidation.