VA says it tried to fire executive for Aurora hospital cost overrun; Rep. Coffman still incensed

It was the VA's most detailed public explanation to date about attempts to discipline high-ranking officials over problems that caused the new hospital's price to nearly triple to $1.7 billion

AURORA | Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman said he was incensed by information released yesterday that the Veterans Affairs Department was about to fire one executive because of massive cost overruns at a VA hospital in Aurora , and another was under investigation — but both retired before they could be reprimanded.

Deputy VA Secretary Sloan Gibson was in Denver Wednesday to discuss those developments and others, saying that the VA is now making progress on completing the massive, delayed project .

It was the VA’s most detailed public explanation to date about attempts to discipline high-ranking officials over problems that caused the new hospital’s price to nearly triple to $1.7 billion.

Congress has repeatedly demanded that the VA fire the executives responsible for the cost overruns, but to date no one has been dismissed. The VA says everyone who was to blame has left the department.

Gibson identified the two executives who retired only by title, the head of the office of acquisition, construction and logistics and a senior VA attorney. He didn’t say which was about to be fired.

That infuriated Aurora Congressman Mike Coffman, who’s been one of the VA’s most vocal critics in Congress, especially regarding the over-budget and delayed hospital in his district.

“Mr. Gibson’s decision to not release to the public the results of the Administrative Investigation Board’s finding and conclusions regarding the VA’s complete and utter mismanagement of the Aurora VA hospital construction project is outrageous.” Coffman said Thursday in a statement. “Taxpayers and veterans alike deserve to know the truth about how this project ended up with over a billion dollars in cost overruns and a three year delay of its completion.

“I called for the release of this report in late March and I call for it again today. American taxpayers and veterans are entitled to VA’s detailed explanation as to how this project went so disastrously off course.”

Glenn Haggstrom, who held the acquisition and construction job, retired in March 2015, one day after he was interviewed under oath as part of an internal investigation. He didn’t immediately return a phone message Wednesday.

Phillipa Anderson, an assistant general counsel in the VA’s contract office, retired in June 2015. She said Wednesday she had no knowledge about whether she had been under investigation over the hospital project, and said her retirement wasn’t related to the hospital. She declined further comment.

Gibson, speaking at a news conference at the hospital construction site in Aurora, said the VA would not publicly release the results of its internal investigation.

Internal reviews go on all the time, and disclosing this one would make it difficult to conduct them in the future, he said.

“You end up chilling the whole investigative process,” he said.

The VA has shown the report to members of congressional committees that oversee the department, Gibson said.

A second investigation by the VA’s inspector general is still underway and will be made public when it’s complete, he said. It’s not clear when that will be.

Investigators blamed the overruns on multiple design changes and a decision by VA officials to use a complicated contract process they didn’t fully understand.

“We got a lot of things wrong,” Gibson said Wednesday.

The 184-bed hospital is 70 percent complete and construction is expected to be done in January 2018. It will replace an aging, overcrowded facility still in use in Denver.

Gibson said the hospital would be opened in phases but declined to give specifics, saying he wanted to make sure everything was in place before committing to dates.

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