A new report alleges that the Department of Veterans Affairs spent $20 million between 2004 and 2014 on costly artwork.
The expenditures included more than $1 million for a courtyard with a large sculpture at a Palo Alto veterans facility; $330,000 for a glass-art installation; and $21,000 for an artificial Christmas tree, according to the report.
Open The Books, a nonprofit that claims to be the world’s largest private database of government spending, in conjunction with Cox Media used government data to examine the Veterans Affairs Department’s (VA) spending on art for their facilities in the decade ending in 2014.
Much of the spending occurred at a time when veterans were experiencing lengthy waits for treatment at VA facilities. After as many as 40 veterans died while seeking care at the VA’s Phoenix Healthcare System, the federal agency’s inspector general found in 2014 that lengthy waits for treatment might have contributed to the deaths but did not definitively cause them.
The Veterans Affairs agency admitted publicly around this time that its health care operations were overwhelmed and understaffed.
Now this new report is sparking fresh anger from both veterans and lawmakers.
Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk, a Republican, wrote Veterans Affairs Secretary Bob McDonald on July 26, demanding a “moratorium on art spending by the VA.” In his letter, Kirk mentioned that a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing last fall highlighted what he said were excessive expenditures, $6.3 million, by the VA on artwork at the Palo Alto Healthcare System.
A spokesperson for the Palo Alto facility told ABC News that it had more than $4 million in art contracts in 2013 and 2014, including for an installation on the side of a parking garage. The installation, meant to honor blind veterans, featured quotes by Abraham Lincoln and Eleanor Roosevelt in Morse code that light up. The irony, critics point out, is that a blind veteran would be unlikely to see the massive artwork that cost $280,000.
Sen. Kirk wrote in his letter to the veterans affairs secretary, “The VA has not taken the directive over a year ago to stop excessive, non-veteran spending on artwork.”
“A Congressionally approved process needs to be formally instated, so the American people are informed on how their tax dollars are spent,” he wrote.
The VA told ABC News that the department is developing a national art policy that will cover the commissioning of artwork.
“While we must be stewards of taxpayer dollars, we also know that providing comprehensive health care for patients goes beyond just offering the most advanced medical treatments. Artwork is one of the many facets that create a healing environment for our nation’s Veterans. We want an atmosphere that welcomes them to VA facilities, shows them respect and appreciation, honors them for their service and sacrifice and exemplifies that this is a safe place for them to receive their care,” the VA said in a statement.
The American Legion also defended the VA’s spending, saying the agency “only used money to purchase upgrades for hospitals that Congress approved and authorized.”
“We don’t want our hospitals looking like the inside of prisons,” Louis Celli, director of veterans affairs and rehabilitation at the American Legion said in a statement.
The VA operates the nation’s largest health care system, with over 1,700 health care facilities.
Its 2017 budget request is for $182.3 billion, and the department – the second largest U.S. government agency – serves more than eight million veterans, according to a VA website.
ABC News was not able to independently verify every contract that the report by Open the Books and Cox Media identified. Furthermore, the report did not delineate what other purchases, like furniture or fixtures, could have been included in a contract that was also stipulated for artwork. However, ABC News was able to confirm that VA contracts showed spending of hundreds of thousands of dollars for individual sculptures and art installations at some facilities.
In addition, the statement that the VA provided to ABC News did not dispute any figures in the report.
Adam Andrzejewski, CEO and founder of Open The Books, told ABC News he thinks there’s “a lot more” spending on art than the $20 million his organization found. He’s called for an investigation into Veterans Affairs procurement practices.
Andrzejewski has also questioned why the art gracing the walls of VA facilities is not designed and made by veterans themselves.
“Veterans tell me [theirs are] the stories that resonate with other veterans, not picturesque landscapes and sculptures they can’t see,” he said.
That’s not to say some of the art installations were not designed with veterans in mind.
Creative Machines Inc. was commissioned to build sculptures at a California facility for $305,000. A spokesperson for the company told ABC News that the firm interviewed veterans to capture their stories. Those accounts will be integrated into three, 10-foot tall, freestanding, stainless steel sculptures. Creative Machines Inc. also noted that the contract budget has since the start of the project been reduced to $286,500.
By ELIZABETH MCLAUGHLIN