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Top Veterans Affairs Official Says Agency Skirts Federal Purchasing Laws

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The VA will have to answer more tough questions. Today, one of its senior procurement officers accused the agency of a lack of oversight and even fraud, resulting in millions of dollars of waste.

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JAN FRYE: Before I go further, I want to assure you I do not enjoy being a whistleblower. I am not a disgruntled VA senior executive.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

That was Jan Frye in front of a House panel. He says the fraud and abuse at the VA involves more than $5 billion in spending each year without the necessary contracts. NPR's Tom Bowman has more.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Jan Frye is a bull-like man, a retired army colonel. He spoke in rapid-fire delivery before a House Veterans Affairs subcommittee, challenging the VA officials who sat right next to him.

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FRYE: I can state without reservation that the VA has and continues to waste millions of dollars by paying excessive prices for goods and services due to breaches of federal procurement laws.

BOWMAN: Frye said that for years VA employees have failed to engage in required competitive bids or sign contracts that would control costs for supplies in health care services.

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FRYE: I'm here before you because I've been unsuccessful in my persistent attempts to bring massive violations of federal acquisition in fiscal laws and regulations to a halt in VA.

BOWMAN: Moreover, the use of so-called purchase cards by the VA - meant for minor purchases up to $3,000 - were used to buy billions of dollars of medical supplies without contracts. One VA investigator told the subcommittee that employees bypass the regulations because it was the easier course. There's no clear estimate of the millions of dollars wasted in the multi-billion dollar programs. The VA tried to prevent Frye from testifying, said the subcommittee chairman, Republican Mike Coffman of Colorado. He chided VA officials for those attempts.

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CONGRESSMAN MIKE COFFMAN: This has become a continuing VA tactic, but appears to be a means to avoid answering questions publicly when the answer might reflect poorly on VA.

BOWMAN: Defending the VA was Edward Murray, the acting assistant secretary for management. He said the department has experienced what he called challenges in managing large programs. Murray said the VA was moving forward to fix the problems, adding that two employees were dismissed for failing to follow the rules regarding those purchase cards.

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EDWARD MURRAY: We recognize the need to continue to expand and improve our oversight, internal controls.

BOWMAN: He was pressed by chairman Coffman.

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COFFMAN: So why are the issues identified in 2012 by Mr. Frye still not fixed?

BOWMAN: Secretary Murray said VA officials established a working group to address the problems.

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MURRAY: And that work group did meet, and the office of business oversight did try to pursue those important issues.

COFFMAN: So it doesn't seem as if you're in a hurry to fix it.

BOWMAN: The VA's assistant inspector general, Linda Halliday, told the subcommittee that the VA now has controls in place to help fix the problems, but it all comes down to making sure there's compliance. That, she said, is where the VA continues to struggle. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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