IG failed to link VA poor care to pa­tient deaths

Grif­fin shields agency, vet­er­ans say

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY JAC­QUE­LINE KLIMAS

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.

In­con­clu­sive

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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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