Great Falls Tribune: Tester blasts VA secretary for 'partisan' Montana visit

by Phil Drake

Sen. Jon Tester has sent a letter to Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie, saying he was concerned over what he called “increasing politicization of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” in which a recent visit by Wilkie to Montana — along with Republican Sen. Steve Daines, who is now up for re-election — was mentioned.

Tester, D-Mont., ranking member of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, signed an Oct. 13 letter, along with Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the chair of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, which also alleges a “potential misuse of taxpayer funds and other government assets, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in an effort to benefit the reelection of President Trump and certain Republican candidates seeking office in 2020.”

The letter notes that Wilkie’s travel schedule includes visits to U.S. Senate battleground states such as Ohio, South Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Maine, Arizona, Kentucky, and Florida.

The VA fired back on Wednesday, saying “The lawmakers’ partisan letter, which has no Republican support, calls into question who’s being partisan in this situation.”

They said Wilkie has visited 49 states in a nonpartisan fashion during his time in office and his official travel is available for public inspection online.

Wilkie visited Fort Harrison on Sept. 28, at the invitation of Daines. They then went to Missoula. Daines is running for another six-year term and faces Democrat Steve Bullock, who is now serving as governor.

Wilkie was in Montana at the invitation of Daines, but he also thanked Tester and GOP Rep. Greg Gianforte for their support.

Tester notes in his letter that a press release from that visit praised “the candidate’s work on veterans’ issues. You led several media appearances on VA grounds, including with the incumbent, and commended his work on veterans’ issues. It appears you conducted this travel in your official capacity as Secretary.”

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks Sept. 28 at Fort Harrison in Helena as Sen. Steve Daines, right, looks on.
“Leaders at VA have historically risen above partisan politics,” the letter states, adding that it appears the official actions of VA senior leaders are steering the Department away from its apolitical mission and potentially using resources “to tip the scale in favor of the president and other Republican candidates.”

Tester and Takano also noted concerns that in 2020, the Department actively prevented Democratic Members of the House and Senate from visiting their local VA facilities to have meetings with local VA employees and administrators while making exceptions for Republican members.

Christina Noel, VA spokeswoman, said the trips give the secretary the opportunity to hear firsthand from employees in the field. She said this “a fundamental responsibility of any VA secretary.”

“The notion that these visits are somehow improper is absurd,” she said.

A Daines spokeswoman criticized Tester’s letter. Daines staff said earlier that Tester and Gianforte had been invited to attend the September event.

“This is nothing more than a desperate political stunt by Senator Tester to try and create a headline to help his buddy Steve Bullock in his election bid,” Katie Schoettler said in an email.

“It was a privilege for Senator Daines to bring VA Secretary Wilkie to Montana to meet directly with Montana veterans and VA providers to talk about important issues facing Montana’s veterans community,” she stated. “It’s a shame that Senator Tester chose to not go to the meetings and play politics instead – it’s truly a disservice to Montana veterans.”