VA Honesty Project
The goal of VA Honesty Project is simple: to highlight the Department of Veterans Affairs’ lack of transparency with the press and the public about its operations and activities.
Because the Department of Veterans Affairs is a taxpayer funded organization, it has a responsibility to fully explain itself to the press and the public. Unfortunately, in many cases VA is failing in this responsibility, as department officials – including 54 full-time public affairs employees – routinely ignore media inquiries.
VA Honesty Project documents nearly 70 recent instances in which VA has failed to respond to reporters’ requests for information or refused to answer specific questions. The department’s apparent disregard for the press has become an object of reporters’ scorn, leading some to openly accuse VA of “thumbing their nose at us” and others to write entire articles focusing on VA’s stonewalling tactics. VA Honesty Project will be continually updated with new examples of VA refusing to respond to the press as they arise.
Is VA being appropriately transparent with the press and the public? Consider the following examples and let us know what you think on Facebook.
"VA officials have declined to discuss proceedings involving Helman, who is believed to be challenging the actions against her." (Dennis Wagner and Dan Nowicki, "Permanent new boss requested for Phoenix VA." Arizona Republic 9/12/2014).
"The Advertiser has made numerous written and phone requests since the leadership change Aug. 21 to speak to Sepich and Robin Jackson, the acting director of CAVHCS, but those requests have so far been denied.
The Advertiser has also requested information about employees who have been charged with crimes or found guilty of ethical violations for incidents that have occurred on the job, but staff members have responded with form paragraphs, did not answer questions or did not provide the information." (Kala Kachmar, "Roby to VA: national leaders need to oversee Montgomery." Montgomery Adveriser 9/3/2014)
"VA Southeast Network and CAVHCS leaders have declined to provide the Montgomery Advertiser with the employment statuses or disciplinary actions taken against the employees VA police investigations found to be guilty of crimes, ethical violations or both." (Kala Kachmar, "What does it take to get fired by the VA?" Montgomery Adveriser 8/30/2014)
"The agency did not respond to questions about why the officials were placed on leave, so it is unclear whether the moves are related to the peer-support specialist’s alleged actions." (Josh Hicks, "A VA employee, a crack house, and a lengthy firing process." Washington Post 8/29/2014)
"The VA did not respond to a request for comment by press time." (CJ Ciaramella, "Auditor that Accredited VA Hospitals Where Patients Died to Review Same Hospitals," Washington Free Beacon, 8/29/2014)
The Times has repeatedly asked the VA why the fact sheet failed to include the correct years. No response has been provided, though the agency insists it did not try to mislead anyone. (William R. Levesque, "VA numbers on treatment delays were misleading," Tampa Bay Times 8/1/2014)
"Requests for comment about the profane email were not immediately returned." (Scott McFarlane, "Internal Emails Depict Activity in Hours Surrounding Former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's Resignation," NBC DC 6/30/2014)
"VA officials were not immediately available for comment Monday." (Jim McElhatton, "Resume-padding VA employee got big bonuses," Washington Times 6/16/2014)
"VA officials in Phoenix and Prescott did not have comment." ("VA hospital in northern Arizona flagged for more probes," AP 6/9/2014)
"Representatives at the national VA declined to comment on the record for this story." (Jacob Siegel, "Texas VA Run Like a ‘Crime Syndicate,’ Whistleblower Says," The Daily Beast 5/27/2014)
"The VA did not immediately respond to a request for comment." (Memos Show VA Staffers Have Been 'Gaming System' for Six Years," NBC News 5/14/2014)
"A VA spokesman declined to comment." (Ben Kesling, "American Legion Calls on Veterans Affairs Secretary Shinseki to Resign," Wall Street Journal 5/5/2014)
"We have been asking for an interview with Eric Shinseki for months, and months, and months...it is radio silence from VA Department of Public Affairs - which I believe has fifty-four public affairs officers in it's headquarters and zip from Eric Shinseki."
Cooper: They have 54 public Affiars Officers? Wow clearly they need them... I guess to hide their people or something... it's outrageous."
(Scott Bronstein, Drew Griffin and Nelli Black, Phoenix VA officials deny there's a secret wait list; doctor says they're lying," CNN 5/1/2014)
"Meanwhile, I-Team 8′s calls to the medical director at Roudebush VA Medical Center were not returned." (Karen Hensel, "I-Team 8 looks into preventable deaths at VA clinics," WISH-TV 4/3/2014)
"The VA was not available for comment by press time." (CJ Ciaramella, "VA Hides Names of Hospitals Where Vets Died From Delays," Washington Free Beacon 3/28/2014)
"The VA did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Nelson’s demands." (Howard Altman, "Sen. Nelson: None of the controversial VA deaths occurred at Haley," Tampa Tribune 3/28/2014)
“A phone call and email to the media department at the VA wasn’t returned, and an email to VA Secretary General Eric Shinseki was also not answered.” (Michael Volpe, “Drugs, corruption go unpunished in Mississippi VA center,” The Daily Caller, 3/19/14)
“Calls to the VA seeking comment were not returned.” (Donovan Slack, “Wis. delegation pushes VA on claims backlog,” Gannett, 3/16/2014)
“Each time we've asked the VA for an interview on this, since we broke the story on the data breach earlier this year, we've been emailed a similar response.
Most recently being told, "The VA has in place a strong, multi-layered defense to combat evolving cybersecurity threats. The VA is committed to protecting veteran information." None of the VA's responses have directly addressed that breach of privacy for thousands of vets.” (Jon Camp, “I-Team: Congress members concerned about lack of response from VA over data breach,” ABC Raleigh, 3/7/2014)
“We did ask VA Public Affairs to get us an explanation directly from Petzel, but so far there has been no response.” (“Reports show conflicting statements about patient deaths at Atlanta VA Medical Center,” ABC Atlanta, 3/5/2014)
“VA officials did not respond directly to allegations in the report, and would not say what action was taken against the supervisors or if the unnamed employee was fired.” (Leo Shane, “IG: Managers let VA employee get away with cheating agency,” Military Times, 3/4/2014)
“VA spokeswoman Laura Schafsnitz said she submitted Jan. 29 questions from The Courier-Journal to higher-ranking officials, but after more than three weeks, no answers were provided.”
“The Courier-Journal asked VA officials and Galloway whether he was paid separately for each appraisal. Neither would comment. Nor would VA officials comment on whether they had made an offer to landowner Jonathan Blue of Blue Equity LLC, based on the earlier appraisal.” (Tom O’Neill, “VA Hospital land appraisals questioned,” The Courier-Journal, 3/4/14)
“[Denver VAMC Public Information Officer Daniel] Warvi denied our requests for a follow-up interview and hung up the phone.” (Amanda Kost and Jennifer Kovaleski, “'Patient safety issue' caused by Denver VA Medical Center parking; Rep. Mike Coffman pushes for fix,” ABC Denver, 3/3/2014)
"Asked about VA’s reported admission at the briefing that some veterans had killed themselves, the agency declined to comment on the record. Instead, its press office provided IBTimes with the results of an unrelated OPH study in which there were no proven suicides." (Jamie Reno, “Department Of Veterans Affairs And Congress Clash Over Suicide Charges,” International Business Times, 2/27/14)
“Petzel would not comment on the former employee’s claims of being fired for exposing the alleged practice of dumping records.” (Leo Shane, “Top VA health official denies dumping patient records,” Military Times, 2/26/2014)
“VA did not return repeated requests for comment. The VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System did not return a request for comment and for an interview with Dr. El-Saden.” (Patrick Howley, “Department of Veterans Affairs employees destroyed veterans’ medical records to cancel backlogged exam requests” The Daily Caller, 2/24/2014)
“The Pittsburgh VA, which refused comment for this story, had previously conceded that five other veterans had probably or definitely contracted Legionnaires' disease during stays in VA buildings before they died in 2011 and 2012.” (Sean Hamill, “6th Legionnaires' victim ‘probably’ contracted disease at VA hospital,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2/23/2014)
"The VA got back to ABC11 with a response to a request for an interview. The statement read, "VA takes seriously its obligation to properly safeguard any personal information within our possession. VA has in place a strong, multi-layered defense to combat evolving cyber security threats. The statement did not say anything about the report ABC11 was asking about." (Jon Camp, “Department of Veterans Affairs was warned privacy breach was practically unavoidable,” ABC Raleigh, 2/21/14)
“The VA is not commenting on Miller's letter or the department's decision to bar employees from talking the Legion representatives.” (Bryant Jordan, “Lawmaker Says VA Obstructed Legion Quality Review,” Military.com, 2/21/2014)
When asked which specific portions of the report were inaccurate, [VA spokeswoman Victoria] Dillon failed to respond. Follow-up questions through additional emails and phone calls for an updated report were not returned. (Dina Gusovsky, “VA data breach 'practically unavoidable,' memo says,” CNBC, 2/20/14)
“A spokeswoman at the local VA could not be reached for comment.” (Blythe Bernhard, “St. Louis VA recruits emergency doctor with paid time off,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 2/13/2014)
“The Memphis VA still refuses WREG’s request for an interview about problems, including those dating back to 2010 and the deaths of three veterans who were not properly treated at the center.” (April Thompson, “Veterans Taking Claims Against Memphis VA Medical Center To Next Level,” CBS Memphis, 2/13/2014)
“When I asked the first time, the VA offered no specifics. When I asked the next day, the VA told me to file a Freedom of Information Act request.”
“Shortly before 1 p.m. Friday, I sent an email to the VA’s national press office asking whether the committee’s take on the information requests was accurate. Almost nine hours later, I am still sitting at my desk, and nary a response.” (Howard Altman, “Altman: VA stalls on providing info on deaths, injuries,” Tampa Tribune, 2/9/2014)
“A Veterans Administration spokesman could not be immediately reached for comment.” (Rich Lord, “VA volunteer files suit, says he contracted Legionnaires disease at Oakland hospital,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 2/6/2014)
“I will tell you this. The VA has been less than cooperative,” he said. “We have asked questions of the Jackson VA and they have not been responsive.” (Douglas Gillison, "In Mississippi, Extent of VA Hospital's Missed Diagnoses Remains Unknown," 100 Reporters 2/6/2014)
“The hospital would not confirm or deny the practice of using social security numbers on patient wristbands.” (Jerome Collins, “12 OYS: VA hospital wristbands may be exposing vets to identity theft,” CBS Augusta, 2/5/2014)
“VA officials could not be reached for comment.” (Abraham Aboraya, “Exclusive: Orlando VA costs to run $150M over budget, more delays possible,” Orlando Business Journal, 1/28/2014)
“Today marks the 38th day since I asked the Dept. of Veterans Affairs in Washington, D.C., for an on-the-record official…”
“In VA’s case, it’s the height of arrogance – and a lack of responsiveness that is an insult to every veteran left waiting at Wilmington.”
“It’s apparent that VA doesn’t want to talk about this.” (Bill McMichael, “Want to know why Wilmington's VA compensation case backlog keeps growing? So would we,” Delaware Online, 1/24/2014)
“VA did not respond to FCW's requests for comment.” (Frank Konkel, “Latest breach at VA has Congress asking more questions,” FCW, 1/27/14)
“The VA has not responded yet to ABC11's numerous attempts to answer questions about the breach.” (Jon Camp, “More problems possible surrounding Veterans Administration data breach,” ABC Raleigh, 1/22/14)
“I-Team 8 has repeatedly asked to speak to the Director of the Indianapolis Regional VA Office. Each time our request has been denied.” (Karen Hensel, “VA doled out bonuses despite poor performance,” WISHTV 1/15/2014)
“… for weeks, now, we’ve tried reaching out to media representatives here at the VA. We’ve tried through emails, through written requests and through phone calls, but we’ve still gotten no response from them.” (Shay Harris, “Second patient claims VA hospital discharged him with needle in arm,” NBC Memphis, 1/15/14)
“A VA spokesperson has not returned Action News 5's calls for comments.” (Nick Kenney, “Patient claims VA hospital discharged him with needle in arm,” NBC Memphis, 1/8/2014)
“VA officials in Albuquerque had no immediate response to a Journal request for comment on the lawsuit.” (Colleen Heild, VA chaplain says boss tormented her, Albuquerque Journal, 12/2/2013)
“The VA declined to comment on any of the specific allegations of mismanagement and medical mistreatment raised in this article.” (Jamie Reno, “VA Is Broken: Death, Medical Mistreatment, Claims Backlogs And Neglect At Veterans Affairs Hospitals And Clinics,” International Business Times, 11/27/13)
“The VA’s administration is really thumbing their nose at us, but also thumbing their nose at Congress.” (Drew Griffin, “Hospital delays are killing America's war veterans,” CNN, 11/20/2013)
“The Department of Veterans Affairs did not immediately respond to requests for comment.” (CJ Ciaramella, “Veterans Affairs Adds New Layer of FOIA Review,” Washington Free Beacon, 11/19/2013)
“VA did not respond to multiple requests for comment.” (Frank Konkel, “Congress turns up heat on VA data breaches,” FCW, 11/4/2013)
“VA, which did not return TheDC’s request for comment, has similarly stonewalled other press outlets.” (Patrick Howley, “House committee: Obama administration refuses to answer to oversight on veteran issues,” The Daily Caller, 11/1/2013)
“VA spokesmen in Pittsburgh and Washington did not respond to requests for comment.” (Mike Wereschagin, Luis Fábregas and Adam Smeltz, “Pittsburgh VA leaders won't face federal charges in deadly Legionnaires' outbreak,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 11/21/2013)
“The VA did not comment for this story, preferring instead the focus be on their new memorial that opened on Veterans Day.” (Mike Synan, “Orlando VA Hospital to open in stages,” FOX Orlando, 11/18/2013)
“The VA did not return telephone calls, but they did release a statement to NBC San Diego. The VA said the two men were “bullying other classmates and refusing to honor other faith groups.” (Todd Starnes, “Veterans Affairs forced chaplains from program for quoting Scripture, praying in the name of Jesus, suit alleges,” Fox News, 11/11/2013)
"Despite the serious issues, the V.A.’s Chief of staff walked away when we tried to ask about the report."
"He refused to take any questions about the deaths at his facility and another report News Channel 3 uncovered showing V.A. Center Directors were getting bonuses in the millions at the same time their facilities were making deadly mistakes." (April Thompson, “Memphis V.A. Medical Center Responds To Patient Death Inspections,” CBS Memphis, 10/24/13)
“A VA spokeswoman in Memphis released a written statement but referred all questions to the agency’s headquarters in Washington, D.C., which did not respond.” (Mark Flatten, “Three more veterans die after improper VA medical treatment,” Washington Examiner, 10/24/2013)
“The Department of Veterans Affairs did not return a request for comment. Memphis VA Medical Center did not return a request for comment.” (Patrick Howley, Documents: “Obama administration VA oversaw preventable veteran deaths,” The Daily Caller, 10/24/2013)
“VA did not return a request for comment.” (Patrick Howley, “Rep. Miller: Obama administration ‘stonewalling’ on bonus to official who oversaw preventable veteran deaths,” Daily Caller, 10/21/2013)
“Senior VA officials declined to be interviewed about the prescription epidemic.” (Aaron Glantz, “VA’s opiate overload feeds veterans’ addictions, overdose deaths,” Center for Investigative Reporting, 9/28/2013)
“VA Pittsburgh officials were not immediately available.” (Kris Mamula, “VA criminal investigation continuing,” Pittsburgh Business Times, 9/24/2013)
“The VA did not respond to Military.com’s request for comment on the Tribune’s story.” (Bryant Jordan, “VA's Embattled Healthcare Chief to Retire,” Military.com, 9/23/2013)
”Efforts to reach [Albuquerque VA Regional Officer Director Chris ] Norton and the Albuquerque office by phone Monday were unsuccessful.” (Robert Nott, “Report finds processing errors in veterans’ disability, injury claims,” The Santa Fe New Mexican, 9/23/2013)
“CBS News contacted the officials for their reaction. We never heard back from one, another declined comment and the other two referred CBS News to the VA.” (Elaine Quijano, “Officials at troubled VA hospitals received big bonuses,” CBS News, 8/27/2013)
“VA officials did not respond to a request for comment.” (Mark Flatten, “House site to track VA bonuses for botched performance,” The Washington Examiner, 8/29/2013)
“A VA spokesperson wouldn't comment on the meeting or the ID Analytics report.” (Jason Miller, “Serious doubts remain about VA's ability to secure veterans' data,” Federal News Radio, 8/7/2013)
“Late last week, the VA's undersecretary of health, Dr. Robert Petzel, was speaking at The National Press Club in Washington, a place specifically designed for open questioning by the press. After the speech, Petzel was asked what he had to say to vets who are concerned because the VA hospital continues to be run by those who presided over the outbreak.”
“The undersecretary just stared dully straight ahead and refused to acknowledge the question.”
“He continued to ignore another question from a Trib reporter about what he would say to veterans who admit they fear going to the VA for treatment because of its handling of the Legionella outbreak.”
“Petzel had just finished an hour-long speech, bragging about the VA's upgrades.”
“His spokesman said the press club wasn't the place for questions.” (Saleno Zito, “Too Tired to Care About VA Scandal?,” Real Clear Politics, 8/4/13)
“News Channel 25 reached out to the VA Regional Office in Waco to get a statement on TBI, but after trying for a couple of weeks, no one ever returned the call.” (Mike Iliopoulos, “VA May Have Hard Time Rating TBI in Recent War Veterans,” ABC Waco, 8/2/2013)
“As always, the local VA regional office is hard to get a hold of, and we could not get any response on this report today.” (John Carroll, “Report Finds Inaccurate Claims Processing At Local VA Office,” CBS Waco, 7/31/2013)
“The top health official in the Department of Veterans Affairs ignored questions on Tuesday about a lethal Legionnaires' disease outbreak…”
“I have a meeting,” Dr. Robert Petzel, the VA's undersecretary of health, told a Tribune-Review reporter when approached with questions…”
“When the Trib reporter asked what he had to say to veterans concerned that the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System continues to be run by those who presided over the outbreak — and received tens of thousands of dollars in bonuses for their performance during that time — Petzel stared straight ahead and would not acknowledge the question. He did the same thing when asked what he would say to veterans who say they fear going to the VA for treatment because of the outbreak's handling.” (Mike Wereschagin and Luis Fábregas, “Top VA health official ignores questions about Pittsburgh deaths,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 7/30/2013)
Atlanta VAMC Director Leslie Wiggins: “I can’t speak specifically to the disciplinary actions that have happened with individual employees.”
Reporter: “They are going to ask you the exact same questions; they are going to want answers. What are you going to say, you’re just going to tell them that you can’t release that information?”
Wiggins: “I am going to be as honest with every piece of information that I can release now with you and with the Senate hearing that’s scheduled for August the 7th.”
Reporter: “But you didn’t say anything.” (Erica Byfield, “VA Director says firings not necessary despite controversy,” ABC Atlanta, 7/11/2013)
“Weeks earlier, our sources told us about a previous investigation into the same allegations, but the VA has refused to tell us how it ended.”
“So far, no one with the VA will say whether Garrett's reassignment has anything to do with the ongoing investigation. Diamant's phone calls to Garrett Wednesday were not returned.” (Aaron Diamant, “Atlanta VA Medical Center police chief reassigned,” ABC Atlanta, 7/3/2013)
“VA officials have for months declined requests for interviews and provided limited information for publication, ignoring phone calls that might require them to respond to questions about Legionella. Cowgill typically responds to Trib questions by email and ignores some questions.” (Adam Smeltz, “VA ‘stakeholders’ invited to session on Legionnaires’ disease prevention efforts,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 6/26/2013)
“Wolf and Moreland did not respond to Trib questions or a request for an interview. Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill would not say why Wolf's evaluation neglected to discuss Legionella.” (Adam Smeltz, “VA Pittsburgh director lauded as Legionnaires’ disease outbreak raged,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 6/24/2013)
“VA Pittsburgh spokesman David Cowgill did not respond to a request for interviews with CEO Terry Wolf and her supervisor, regional Director Michael Moreland.”
(Luis Fábregas and Mike Wereschagin, “Congressmen: VA Pittsburgh ignored requests for Legionnaires’ records” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 6/18/2013)
Reporter: "Why is the VA running spots on TV?"
VA Spokesman Keith Gottschalk: "I can't talk about it. I'm not authorized to talk about the spots."
Reporter: "There's criticism from the daughter of one of the Legionnaires’ victims about these spots. Is that a concern?"
VA Spokesman Keith Gottschalk: "You know I understand that, we really understand that, we feel very deeply about that, but furthermore I really can't say anything guys.” (Paul Van Osdol, “Pittsburgh VA spending taxpayer money on TV ads,” ABC Pittsburgh, 5/23/2013)
“The VA declined a request for an interview with director Jeff Milligan. A spokesperson did not answer any questions in reference to employee complaints or current staffing levels. A spokesperson would not provide specifics about the criteria for the bonuses.” (Jason Allen, “I-Team: VA Workers Say Poor Conditions Led To Complaints,” CBS Dallas, 06/12/2013)
“VA officials provided no information on salaries or bonuses, despite numerous requests by The Washington Examiner. Agency officials also refused to comment beyond issuing a written statement saying, "performance awards take into account both individual and overall organizational performance goals." (Mark Flatten, “Failing VA officials collected massive bonuses for years” The Washington Examiner, 5/8/2013)
“But the VA refused to provide any information when The Washington Examiner sought to determine how much the directors of failing regional offices have been paid in salaries and bonuses. The newspaper filed a Freedom of Information Act request more than a month ago and also requested the data through the VA media relations office. But VA would not even provide a staff list showing who are the regional directors and other high officials in those offices.” (Mark Flatten, “Washington Examiner got bonus data with no thanks to VA,” The Washington Examiner, 5/8/2013)
“Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill did not answer Trib questions on Friday about the report.” (Mike Wereschagin and Adam Smeltz, “Second report critical of VA Pittsburgh,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 5/4/2013)
“[VA Regional Director] Moreland and [Medical Center Director] Wolf declined interview requests through Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill.” (Luis Fábregas, Mike Wereschagin and Adam Smeltz, “VA union leaders angry over bonuses paid during Legionnaires’ outbreak,” Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 4/25/2013)
“Asked in a follow-up question why, then, there was a discrepancy when the CDC did its first count, Mr. Cowgill declined to comment.”
“The internal Pittsburgh VA document was later updated Nov. 14, noting that in the wake of the CDC investigation, that VA pledged to "enhance reporting mechanisms to infection prevention and to the national surveillance system. Mr. Cowgill would also not answer questions about why the VA pledged to do that.” (Sean Hamill, “Health watchdogs lacked Legionnaires' data for Pittsburgh VA hospital,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 3/10/2013)
“How many veterans die annually while they wait for the embattled U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to approve their claim for disability benefits? The answer: The VA won’t say.” (Yvonne Wenger, “VA won't say how many veterans die waiting for disability benefits,” Baltimore Sun, 1/29/2013)
“The Veterans Administration would not say if any of the patients known to have been sick with Legionnaires' disease at the hospital in Pittsburgh had died, but it told the Allegheny County Health Department that one of them did, a health department spokesman said.”
“VA spokesman David Cowgill would not agree to an interview. Instead, he released media advisories, one of which concluded: ‘VA is committed to providing safe facilities and quality care for veterans.’"
(Nelli Black and Drew Griffin, “VA under scrutiny after Legionnaires' cases in Pittsburgh,” CNN, 12/14/2012)
“Pittsburgh VA spokesman David Cowgill refused to answer any questions about the allegations by Dr. Stout and Dr. Yu.”
“Mr. Cowgill of the VA would not provide any specifics about why the VA believes the copper-silver ionization system failed or why it called Enrich this past summer.” (Sean Hamill, “5th case of Legionnaires' disease reported at VA hospital in Oakland” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 11/24/2012)
“VA officials refused to comment or provide additional documents requested by The Washington Examiner.” (Mark Flatten, “Rules fail to restrain big-spending VA officials,” The Washington Examiner, 11/14/2012)