Aggressive efforts by the Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Inspector General to learn more about the VA healthcare scandal are leading to new questions about whether private groups should be required to provide this information.
On May 30, the OIG issued a subpoena to the Project On Government Oversight for information that private watchdog group has collected about the VA scandal. POGO says it has collected information from 500 people about various problems within the VA, that about one-third of these comments came from VA employees.
On June 9, POGO said that while it supports the work of the OIG, it would not be handing over any information requested in the subpoena. POGO said it must protect the identities of people blowing the whistle on the VA.
“The administrative subpoena served by the IG on POGO would infringe on POGO’s freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of association rights,” the group said.
“POGO’s good government advocacy and investigative reporting activities and our ability to persuade whistleblowers to reach out to our organization are values protected by the First Amendment,” it added.
The OIG’s demand for information prompted Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) to write a letter asking why the subpoena was issued to POGO, and how many other subpoenas it has issued.
Late last week, the OIG replied by saying it is charged with holding people at the VA responsible for their actions related to the scandal. It also asserted that private groups like POGO are being “irresponsible” for alleging violations of the law without sharing that information with the OIG.
“Because the VA OIG is the only entity that has the statutory authority to obtain all records and interview all the individuals to verify or refute allegations, we sought information from POGO to include in our investigation,” the OIG wrote to Coburn. “It is irresponsible for any private organization, such as POGO, to report mere allegations as fact without conducting a complete and thorough investigation.”
The OIG also told Coburn that it has issued more than 300 administrative subpoenas per year on average since 2011 to private entities. Since 2011, that’s more than 1,200 subpoenas.
As of early this week, it’s unclear whether the OIG would take legal steps against POGO to force the group to comply with the subpoena. The demand for information said POGO had until last Friday to comply.
“Under no circumstances does POGO plan to release any information that would compromise whistleblowers,” POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian wrote on Friday. “It has not happened in our 33-year history. It’s not going to happen now.”
Read the OIG’s letter to Coburn here, and below that, POGO’s response to the OIG’s subpoena: