Tester, Takano Demand Answers on Politicization of VA and Potential Hatch Act Violations

Veterans’ Affairs Committee leaders press VA Secretary Wilkie for information following multiple reports of targeted assistance using taxpayer dollars to President Trump and 2020 Republican candidates

Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Ranking Member Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) are expressing serious concerns over the increasing politicization of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)—including the 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.

“Leaders at VA have historically risen above partisan politics,” the members wrote in a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. “Unfortunately, our review of publicly available information, media reports, social media postings, and other data suggests that the travel, events, and other related official actions of VA senior leaders are steering the Department away from its apolitical mission and potentially using Department resources in an attempt to tip the scale in favor of the President and other Republican candidates. Furthermore, efforts to engage in overtly political activity may have come at the expense of legitimate functions of the Department’s mission—to provide health care, benefits, and memorial services to our nation’s veterans, as well as care for their families. This mission should bring together Americans and all elected officials, rather than divide us along party lines.”

The Hatch Act, relevant regulations, Office of Special Counsel (OSC) advisories, and VA policies lay out distinct rules and guidelines to prohibit senior government officials from misusing taxpayer funds to inappropriately influence elections. In their letter, Tester and Takano cited numerous examples of senior leaders at VA appearing to use the power, reach, and resources of the Department to inappropriately involve themselves in political campaigns to benefit the President and his supporters in Congress. This includes visits and events in key Presidential or 2020 U.S. Senate battleground states such as Ohio, South Carolina, North Carolina, Michigan, Montana, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Maine, Arizona, Kentucky, and Florida.

The members continued, “OSC lays out a series of 12 non-exhaustive guidelines for agencies to use when deciding the appropriateness of events and whether they are political in nature. Therefore, the sequence and origin of each event or trip, and the related ethics reviews and other oversight activities taken by the Department in advance of each trip, are critical to our understanding of how VA applied the appropriate rules and whether taxpayers financed the trips or events. Past Administrations, under the tenure of presidents of both parties, have had to comply with these laws and rules. VA and its leadership does not get a pass and must be held accountable.”

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 conduct meetings with local VA employees and administrators while making exceptions for Republican Members. The members went on to highlight VA’s inconsistent and possibly politically-motivated efforts to block Members of Congress from conducting oversight and fulfilling their legislative duties—an unacceptable violation of the law.

The Democratic leaders of the Senate and House Veterans’ Affairs Committees’ letter requests detailed information from the Secretary, including internal e-mails, documents, financial records, communications with the White House and other materials regarding his and other VA officials’ travel and events in the months and weeks leading up to the upcoming November 3 election in order to determine the extent and degree of the possible violations of the Hatch Act, OSC guidelines, and VA’s own policies.

A copy of the members’ letter can be found HERE.