Senators weigh credentials, priorities of VA watchdog nominee

Experience, aggressiveness, confidence and understanding are needed to help turn around the struggling Department of Veterans Affairs, lawmakers said Tuesday, as they reviewed the President Barack Obama’s pick for inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Michael Missal, nominee for the watchdog position, defended his career both in government and the private sector, and assured members of the Senate Committee of Veterans’ Affairs that he had the “experience, skills, judgment and temperament to be a highly effective inspector general.”

“This is a particularly critical time for the VA as it attempts to rebuild the trust and confidence it has lost from our veterans, Congress, veterans service organizations and the American public,” Missal said. “The VA inspector general plays a crucial and independent role in assisting the VA meet its mission and identifying the instances where it falls short. The need to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse, and to promote efficiency and integrity at the VA may never have been greater. Recent public reports from the Office of Inspector General and elsewhere underscore the need for significant and prompt improvements in the way the VA is servicing our veterans. If confirmed, I look forward to playing a role in strengthening the programs, policies and culture of the VA.”

Struggles and serious problems

The VA has struggled with a range of problems, including tens of thousands of backlogged disability claims, manipulation of information and mismanagement in leadership positions.

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VA’s office of inspector general is currently led by acting IG Linda Halliday. She took over in July after Richard Griffin retired.

“We have a very serious problem at the veterans administration,” said Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.). “We basically have an organization that is the second largest agency in the federal government, an organization that has had employees indicted … administrators of hospitals fired … [$1.3 billion] cost overruns at a hospital that’s 13 years late and being built, difficulties of management from one to another, delayed benefits to our veterans, and quite frankly an organization who’s management has been spotty at best.”

And while efforts have been made to turn the agency around, Isakson said, “We haven’t crossed the Rubicon yet. … I think the IG’s office can help us do that by rooting out the problems that are left, giving us the recommendations to solve them, and making the tenacious, bulldog-type statements that you have to make to get the attention of the management of the veterans administration.”

Isakson asked Missal whether he was prepared to “embrace aggressively” four notable problems facing the VA: the resignation of the undersecretary for benefits at the Veterans Affairs Department, the indictment of a VA manager at a Georgia medical center for manipulating records, data manipulation in general, and retaliation against whistleblowers, though Isakson highlighted the “culture of manipulation of statistics” as a priority concern.

“We’ve got to change it from a negative to a positive culture and in the end it’s gonna be done from the outside,” Isakson said. “Quite frankly, the IG’s office is the closest thing to the outside that we’ve got.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) urged Missal to work with the Department of Justice, calling the agency an “important partner” when dealing with criminal wrongdoing.

“Your taking over this job should be a part of not only stronger law enforcement within the VA but also a change in culture, because deterrents and preventive action are really what is needed here to regain the trust of Congress and the American People,” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal also asked for Missal’s perception of how whistleblowers had been treated by the VA in the past.

Missal said he knew of a number of reports that found whistleblowers don’t seem to be fully satisfied with the agency.

“One of the things I would do, this would be a priority, is to try and create an environment [where] whistleblowers feel confident their concerns are going to be looked at fully, fairly and objectively, because I believe very strongly that whistleblowers can really aid in terms of getting the information necessary for the inspector general,” Missal said.

Supporting whistleblowers, communicating with Congress

Sens. Mike Rounds (R- S.D.) and John Boozman (R-Ark.) wanted to know about Missal’s credentials since he has no inspector general experience.

Missal currently works as a partner at K&L Gates LLP, an international law firm based in Washington. Though Missal has worked at the firm since 1991, he has a decade of government service under his belt. He was a staff assistant for President Jimmy Carter from 1978-80. He worked as a law clerk for Chief Judge H. Carl Moultrie, District of Columbia Superior Court, from 1982-83. He also worked as senior counsel for the Securities and Exchange Commission’s Division of Enforcement from 1983-87.

Missal said his work as a prosecutor at the SEC has given him tools helpful for the job, as well as his work with government officials, regulators and other inspectors general during his time in private practice. He said his focus in private practice has been on investigations, audits and inspections, and he also manages the nationwide health care practice K&L.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) also asked what Missal would do to aid whistleblowers, to which Missal said he hoped to persuade them that “the environment is going to change,” and that their concerns would be heard and reviewed fairly and appropriately.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) tried to nail down at what point Missal would find it necessary to come to Congress with a concern, even to the point, for example, where he identified fraud at the secretary level or in the White House.

Missal said depending on the situation he may very well bring concerns to Capitol Hill, but also highlighted the “power of the pen.”

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