IG failed to link VA poor care to patient deaths
Griffin shields agency, veterans say
He’s the man leading the investigation into problems at the VA, but Inspector General Richard J. Griffin himself is increasingly under scrutiny for his conclusions, which have failed to find any exact link between veterans’ deaths and botched care.
Mr. Griffin, who has been acting chief of the 669-person inspector general’s office since January, vehemently defends his work and bristles at accusations from both veterans groups and members of Congress that he’s compromised the inspector general’s integrity.
But it’s not the first time he’s faced these kinds of questions, dating back to a previous stint at the helm of the VA inspector general’s office in the 1990s, when he was accused of “shoddy” investigations six months into that tenure.
Darin Selnick, senior veterans affairs adviser at Concerned Veterans for America, said Mr. Griffin is a competent inspector general who does a good job with investigations when there’s nothing controversial about them. When the agency makes news, though, Mr. Selnick said Mr. Griffin becomes combative and evasive — just as he seemed to do in his recent congressional testimony.
“When there’s something really significant, he seems to go into the protectthe-agency mode,” said Mr. Selnick, who worked at the VA from 2001 to 2009 as a special assistant to the secretary during Mr. Griffin’s time as the inspector general. “You can see that pattern in the late ‘90s. You can see that pattern after he took over as acting IG here in the last year.”
The latest dispute comes at a time when inspectors generalw, who are the official watchdogs in every government department and agency, are clamoring for more independence and worrying about restrictions on their ability to do their jobs.
In Mr. Griffin’s case, the questions about independence come even as he’s been tasked with getting to the bottom of one of the worst veterans scandals in history, after whistleblowers said the VA caused the deaths of dozens of patients by canceling their appointments or sticking them on secret wait lists, leaving them awaiting lifesaving care.
Art Wu, who worked with Mr. Griffin as a former House VA committee staffer, said Mr. Griffin is only in the crossfire now because members of Congress are “legislating by emotion.”
“It’s a heated issue,” Mr. Wu said. “People are looking for a scapegoat. There are grieving families out there, people waiting in an emergency room and never getting an appointment for three months.”
Mr. Griffin came to the VA first in 1997 after a 26-year career at the Secret Service, including service as that agency’s deputy director.
Six months after taking over, he found himself testifying to Congress, defending his new office’s handling of an investigation into a potential cover-up of 42 patient deaths at a Missouri VA hospital. In that case, Congress’s investigative arm, then known as the General Accounting Office, said inspector general investigators hadn’t followed up on all the leads.
The GAO told Congress that Mr. Griffin’s office did “a shoddy job at best” of investigating allegations that the director of the Missouri facility was reticent to summon the FBI to investigate, The Washington Post reported at the time.
Mr. Griffin testified that the GAO “wrongly assumed” that investigators had looked into only the deaths and not the alleged cover-up, but lawmakers did not seem to buy that argument, the article said.
Catherine Gromek, a spokeswoman for the VA inspector general, pointed out that the investigation took place before Mr. Griffin took over the organization.
During that initial stint as inspector general, which lasted until 2005, Mr. Griffin also oversaw investigations into a VA hospital in New Jersey, concluding that care was adequate despite more than half of the workers surveyed at the hospital saying they were understaffed, the Newark Star-Ledger reported in 1998.
The VA did not make Mr. Griffin available for an interview for this article.
But Anthony Principi, the former VA secretary during Mr. Griffin’s first stint as inspector general, said he is a straight shooter and not one to be influenced by other opinions, something lawmakers alleged when asking if a line in the report denying a link between care and deaths was added because of pressure from the VA.
“I just think he’s a man of enormous integrity. It’s always difficult when these kind of scandals arise, but I always thought he and his people were very, very solid in what they did. I have enormous respect for him and that office,” Mr. Principi said.
Mr. Griffin left the VA inspector general’s office in 2005 to serve as assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, where part of his job was overseeing the contractors providing security for military and diplomatic efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He abruptly resigned from that job in October 2007, a month after contractors from Blackwater USA were involved in a shootout that left 17 Iraqis dead — one of a series of reports that the contractors were too quick to shoot in confrontations with locals.
A year later he was back at the VA inspector general’s office as deputy inspector general — a position he still holds, though he has been acting as the chief since January.
That’s put him in charge of the expansive investigation into poor care and wait lists at the VA. The investigation has already cost former VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki his job, and new Secretary Robert A. McDonald promises more heads could roll at VA offices found to be derelict.
Mr. Griffin is looking into 93 VA facilities across the country, but so far has only released a final 143-page report on the Phoenix VA, where he found that patients had suffered poor care and long wait times but could not conclusively assert that those conditions caused deaths.
The report looked at specific cases where patients experienced delays or substandard care, including one patient who finally got an appointment at the VA three months after dying from severe liver disease. Another patient was suspected of having lung cancer, but a diagnosis only came nine weeks later, at which point he was placed in hospice. Several of the cases saw a patient seek mental health services but commit suicide before the VA could provide help.
Inspector general officials testified before Congress that they could not find a conclusive link, though they did admit that better care in some cases could have prolonged a life or provided better quality of life.
Dr. Sam Foote, one of the whistleblowers who revealed problems in Phoenix, has questioned Mr. Griffin’s conclusions, saying the inspector general’s own findings suggest that botched care led to deaths.
And Republicans on Capitol Hill agreed, peppering Mr. Griffin with questions at a House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs hearing last month.
At one point, Rep. Dan Benishek, Michigan Republican, said they were so pointed in their questions because they wanted to make sure the VA had an inspector general capable of withstanding pressure from the Obama administration or public opinion.
“We do not have an inspector general right now in our office,” Mr. Griffin countered. “It is a presidential appointment. Everybody who worked on this report is a career federal employee. We do not pick sides.”
Mr. Griffin also tried to push back against Dr. Foote’s claims, saying the doctor wouldn’t reveal to investigators the list of 40 veterans he said died because of botched care.
At one point Mr. Griffin tried to have the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs include the transcript of inspector general investigators’ interview with Dr. Foote in the hearing record. But the committee declined that, saying that it could discourage future whistleblowers.
Dr. Foote said that the agency tried to release the transcript to get even with him for calling the final inspector general report a whitewash at best.
“That was retaliatory against me, one of many things that have been done,” he said. “You’re speaking in confidence. If they’re going to turn around and publish everything you say, what’s that going to do to future whistleblowers?”
Committee Chairman Jeff Miller, Florida Republican, sent a letter to Mr. Griffin questioning his reasoning behind trying to make the transcript public. Mr. Miller said it could have a “chilling effect … on other VA employees.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Griffin said they will not publicly release the transcript on their website following the committee’s decision.
Ultimately, Mr. Selnik said the best solution to the problems at the inspector general is for President Obama to nominate, and the Senate to confirm, a fully tenured inspector general who will have more credibility working with both members of Congress and VA employees.
“Obama talks about how much he cares about veterans, but he’s always reactive,” Mr. Selnik said. “The only reason you would not have a nomination at this point is that you don’t see it as being important. For whatever reason, the president and his staff don’t see this as an important nomination.”
Inspector General Richard J. Griffin himself is under scrutiny for his conclusions, which have failed to find any exact link between veterans’ deaths and botched care at the VA. Mr. Griffin bristles at attacks from both veterans groups and members of Congress.