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House vets panel subpoenas details on VA art purchases


The VA campus in Palo Alto, CA | VA photo

The Republican majority on the House Veterans Affairs Committee pushed through a voice vote Wednesday to subpoena documents from the Department of Veterans Affairs on millions spent for artworks at VA facilities and huge cost overruns at a Denver-area hospital.

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"It's unfortunate that the VA's continuing lack of transparency has led us to this decision" to move for the subpoenas, said Rep. Jeff Miller, a Florida Republican and the committee chairman.

"I am confident we are not receiving the whole picture from the department" on spending for art and ornamental furnishings, including $6.4 million at Palo Alto, California, facilities.

The committee also wants specifics on the costs for a new Aurora, Colorado, facility that ballooned to $1.7 billion, nearly three times the original estimate.

Rep. Mark Takano, a California Democrat and the ranking committee member, argued that the VA was already working to provide answers and warned that the subpoenas could expose whistleblowers. "Now you will be outing employees who were honest with investigators" on the artworks and the spending on the Aurora facility, Takano said.

In June, Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson said, "We got a lot of things wrong" with construction of the Aurora facility, but releasing an internal VA investigation would be counterproductive.

"You end up chilling the whole investigative process," Gibson said in a news conference at the construction site.

House Veterans Affairs chairman Rep. Jeff Miller

The subpoenas ask for all information on VA art and ornamental furniture purchases since 2010. The VA's response in the inquiry thus far has been "wholly incomplete," Miller charged.

"We will not accept VA trying to pull the wool over the eyes of this committee and the American people for poor decision-making and waste of funds made on the part of the department," Miller said.

"VA claims to have spent approximately $4.7 million on art nationwide from January 2010 to July 2016, yet the committee has already substantiated over $6.4 million spent during this period in the Palo Alto health care system alone," he said.

Miller again singled out artworks at the Palo Alto Polytrauma Rehabilitation Center, described by the VA as one of five facilities nationwide designed to provide intensive rehabilitative care to veterans and service members with severe injuries to more than one organ system. Miller made similar complaints about Palo Alto nearly a year ago in a House floor speech.

Miller took issue with "Harbor," a huge rock sculpture in a pool that its designers said was intended to evoke "a sense of transformation, rebuilding and self-investigation."

When installation was included, it cost nearly $1 million "to put the rock up," Miller told the committee.

Miller also complained about an artwork called "Horizon" on the walls of the Palo Alto facility's parking garage.

"Horizon" spells out in Morse code the "With malice toward none …" quote from President Abraham Lincoln's famous Second Inaugural address and a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, which says in part, "You must do the things you think you cannot do."