Veterans Affairs Gets Ernst ‘Squeal Award’ for Dirty Facilities, Shortage of Janitorial Staff, Too Many PR Operatives

By Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Mark Tapscott
Congressional Correspondent
Mark Tapscott is an award-winning investigative editor and reporter who covers Congress, national politics, and policy for The Epoch Times. Mark was admitted to the National Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Hall of Fame in 2006 and he was named Journalist of the Year by CPAC in 2008. He was a consulting editor on the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series “Other Than Honorable” in 2014.
July 31, 2020Updated: August 2, 2020

Dozens of Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) health care facilities lack required levels of cleanliness due to shortage of custodial staff, even as the department fattens up the ranks of its public relations experts, according to Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

The VA’s accounting and grant-management records are also severely lacking, Ernst said in a statement made available to The Epoch Times late on July 30.

“Ensuring sanitary conditions and practicing good hygiene is absolutely critical to the safety and health of our veterans and their caregivers, especially during COVID-19, which has claimed the lives of nearly 2,000 VA patients and more than 40 VA employees,” Ernst said.

“But staff shortages at the VA have been a problem long before this pandemic. VA facilities have been cited for ‘inconsistent levels of cleanliness’ and ‘lack of cleanliness,’” Ernst said.

As a result, Ernst named the department as the latest recipient of her Squeal Award, a highly unsought-after prize given by the Iowa Republican to government departments and agencies exhibiting waste, fraud, and inefficiency.

Ernst is the first U.S. Army female combat veteran ever elected to the Senate.

The VA has been the subject of multiple scandals and investigations in the past decade, due to thousands of veterans being unable to secure timely treatment, sometimes with a fatal result, government officials falsifying treatment and appointment records, and wasteful spending on questionable employee conferences.

Among President Donald Trump’s priorities early in his tenure was securing congressional approval of expedited firing authority for VA leaders to weed out incompetent and dishonest employees.

Citing a March 2020 report from the VA’s inspector general, Ernst pointed to “the importance of our essential workers. Each and every day, they get up and go to work to keep our country moving.

“But right now, there aren’t enough of these front-line workers at VA. The VA is also suffering from ‘severe’ custodial and cleaning staff shortages, which is putting the lives of our veterans at risk during a global pandemic.”

Ernst faulted VA officials for failing to respond to the IG’s warnings about staff shortages in the housecleaning area, and, based on a new analysis by the nonprofit government watchdog Open the Books, she claimed more attention has been paid by decision-makers in the department’s senior ranks to “cleaning up its public appearance.”

“In fact, the VA public affairs staff size increased by 25 percent since 2012, with the department spending more than $30 million for 329 public affairs officers,” Ernst said.

“The VA is also paying almost $14 million for 181 interior decorators and over $9 million on 189 gardeners. Nearly $20 million of Iowa taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars were even spent on artwork to decorate VA buildings.

“This is the federal agency that is supposed to care for our nation’s heroes, and instead, we’re focused on gardens and decorations? Give me a break.”

Ernst recalled that she offered an amendment to a VA appropriations bill in 2016 that would have prohibited the use of tax dollars to purchase art or pay for art-related consultants.

“Congress instead chose to sweep the waste under the rug. Are you surprised?” she said. “It is appalling that instead of using $20 million of taxpayer money to reduce the backlog and ensure quality and timely care for our veterans, the VA chose to spend that money on decorative artwork.”

Ernst’s critique of VA’s accounting and grant-management practices cited a 2017 IG report that found extensive weaknesses in the department’s ability to track internal spending and to conform to government-wide requirements for administering federal grants.

“The VA’s spending records are a mess, littered with inaccuracies and incomplete information, making it difficult—if not impossible—to know how the department is spending taxpayer dollars,” Ernst said.

“Clearly, the VA needs to put as much and more emphasis on cleaning up its actual facilities—and its books—as it does on its public appearance.”

With the recent passing of former Sen. Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican known among colleagues and the media as “Dr. No” for his many years of exposing waste, fraud, and abuse in government spending, Ernst has become the Senate’s most vocal crusader against squandered tax dollars.

Her previous Squeal Awards have spotlighted a special tax loophole that unfairly benefits China, the $1.4 billion spent by federal officials to create and buy mascots and other marketing trinkets, the Pentagon spending hundreds of millions of tax dollars purchasing Chinese-made computers and other digital devices that represent national security risks, and billions of tax dollars spent by federal officials on bonuses given to contractors, despite poor performance.

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