A whistleblower said he was fired by the Veterans Affairs Department after warning of cost overruns at the Denver VA hospital, prompting a rebuke Wednesday from members of Congress who questioned why higher-ranking executives haven't been punished.
VA contract specialist Adelino Gorospe warned department executives in 2011 that the hospital would cost more than official estimates, The Denver Post reported. Gorospe told the newspaper that he was fired in 2012 for allegedly disobeying a supervisor.
At a hearing Wednesday in Washington, members of the House Veterans Affairs Committee asked why Gorospe was fired but Glenn Haggstrom, the VA's top construction executive, retired last month with full benefits amid an internal investigation into the Denver project.
"The VA seems to be punishing the whistleblowers, intimidating (them), and then highlighting and giving bonuses to the guys who are screwing up," said Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas. "Now where is the accountability in that?"
Haggstrom didn't immediately respond to a telephone message seeking further comment Wednesday.
VA Deputy Secretary Sloan Gibson told the committee the investigation of the Denver hospital would be expanded to include Gorospe's firing. He said Haggstrom retired one day after investigators interviewed him under oath, and that he was legally entitled to do so.
The hospital under construction in suburban Aurora is now expected to cost $1.73 billion and be complete in 2017. Last year, the VA said it would cost $630 million and be done in 2015.
The department has said it needs another $830 million to finish. It wants to take the money from a $5 billion fund Congress set up for the VA to hire more physicians, upgrade facilities, improve efficiency and make other changes to give veterans better access to health care.
Several committee members expressed skepticism about that plan. Rep. Ann McLane Kuster, D-New Hampshire, said that would deprive veterans in other parts of the country.
"We want to serve our Western colleagues and constituents and veterans. But the trouble that I have is taking this funding out of other construction projects," she said. "We have needs as well."
Gibson told the panel the enormous cost overruns occurred because the plans weren't finalized before construction began and the design had some extravagant features, including an outsized atrium. Gibson also cited construction cost increases in Denver and premiums paid to contractors to compensate for risks associated with the project.
In a testy exchange with Gibson, Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-New York, suggested criminal wrongdoing may have occurred and said law-enforcement investigators should get involved.
Gibson said he had seen no evidence of crimes.
Day-to-day supervision of the Denver hospital is being turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers. Lloyd C. Caldwell, director of military programs for the corps, told the committee the $1.73 billion estimate might be revised downward after an assessment currently underway.
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