Lack of transparency in the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) means it’s just as hard to tell when the department is spending taxpayer money wisely as it is to see wasteful spending.
The scandal-plagued VA has come under fire for the money it spends on art for hospitals, but one hospital actually supported a Navy veteran by purchasing his sculpture for a courtyard.
Over the past month, various members of Congress have called for a moratorium on art purchases, and a formal, transparent process for how the department purchases artwork. Specifically, they want the VA to disclose art purchases clearly to avoid wasteful spending, and ensure that wherever possible, veteran artists are supported.
The Daily Caller News Foundation looked at one sculpture that was specifically called out as an example of the VA’s inscrutable and possibly wasteful art purchases. Critics of the VA say that, if the department must buy art for hospitals, they should at least purchase it from veteran artists and businessmen.
TheDCNF found one VA hospital that did just that. It purchased a monumental sculpture by a retired Navy veteran. But the procurement process is so convoluted that even when the VA does something right, not even the chair of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Appropriations on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs and Related Agencies can see it.
Sen. Mark Kirk, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, was the first to call out the VA for its art purchases. The senator sent a letter to Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert McDonald in October, 2015, requesting information on the department’s purchasing process. He received no response.
The VA spends quite a bit of money on art: at least $19 million in the past decade, according to private watchdog group American Transparency. That number doesn’t even include the art that is purchased through subcontractors. The watchdog group published a report of the VA’s art purchases in July on its website, OpenTheBooks.com, which also shows that the department routinely slips purchases of big pieces of art into general construction, landscaping, architecture and even furniture contracts. (RELATED: Report: VA Spends $20 Million On Art Instead Of Hiring Doctors)
The report reignited the ire against the VA’s wasteful spending, especially during one of the worst periods of the department’s history. “Spending money on decorative art while veterans wait for care is unacceptable and Secretary McDonald should block any more purchases and formalize processes to use artwork by veterans instead,” Kirk said in a July 26 statement.(RELATED: Senator Tells VA To Stop ‘Extravagant Spending’ On High-End Art)
“The VA has not taken the year-old directive to stop excessive spending on and I’m calling for an immediate moratorium on art purchases until a Congressionally approved process is formally instated, so the American people are informed on how their tax dollars are spent,” Kirk said.
Kirk wrote again to McDonald on Aug. 8 to call out The Edward Hines Jr. VA Hospital in Chicago, Ill., for one piece of art that “[did] not appear in any public spending record since 2009.”
According to Kirk’s letter, a whistleblower from the Hines VA hospital has reason to believe that a sculpture called Meridian X “was hidden in a construction account, making the purchase impossible for the public to find.”
Kirk’s criticism of Hines is not without merit, and the senator has doggedly pursued the truth surrounding alleged corruption at Hines. The hospital is hardly a shining example of high-quality veteran care. It recently shut down its kitchen because it was infested with cockroaches. (RELATED: Hines VA Will Shut Down Its Cockroach-Infested Kitchen And Remodel The Whole Thing)
The Meridian X sculpture was procured under none other than Sharon Helman, director of the Hines from 2010-2012, during the renovations which included buying and installing the sculpture. After her work at Hines, Helman moved to Phoenix, Ariz., where, as she later admitted, she accepted illegal gifts from lobbyists and contractors.
Kirk is right that the Meridian X sculpture was actually purchased under a general contract during a big remodel of the Hines hospital in 2012, the artist and contractors working on the project told TheDCNF. The sculpture was paid for through one of the construction contractors, but the art selection and the rest of the project was managed by the architect working on the reconstruction.
“At 10:30 at night, I got this phone call from the architect’s office,” Ed McCullough, sculptor of the massive stainless steel Meridian X, explained to TheDCNF. “He had been assigned the responsibility to contact sculptors to submit to the award.” McCullough was one of three artists who’s submission made it into the final round of the contest to design the sculpture for the hospital. All three were veterans, and the competition was tough.
McCullough presented his idea to the architects, and a day or so later, they said they wanted him to build the sculpture, but they needed the sculpture installed in the hospital courtyard on a tight timeline.
“They wanted it completed in two months,” McCullough said. “Hercules himself couldn’t do that. I immediately turned it down. I said there’s no way I could do this, it’s crazy.”
The project managers insisted, so McCullough worked with Vector Custom Fabricating and other Chicago artists to build, burnish and install the sculpture to meet the deadline.
“We knew [McCullough] and respected his work,” Steve Mueller, co-founder of Vector, told TheDCNF. “When we found out he needed help producing the Meridian X, we were proud to help him.”
By the time the sculpture was put in place, no one involved in the project made much money, Mueller and McCullough said. “Almost everybody did it as a labor of love,” Mueller said. “The crane and installation was done by another artist, who basically did it at cost,” Mueller said.
According to Mueller, the total payment for the sculpture was around $71,000. The money came from a construction company on the project, which recently changed its name, and did not return TheDCNF’s request for comment. The architects who designed the project also did not return requests for comment.
The price was low for a monumental work of art like the Meridian X. McCullough says he basically broke even on the project, but that’s fine, because he did it for the love.
“It went to very deep, meaningful places for me,” he said. “Whether I got paid well for it, that’s OK.” McCullough served in the Navy from 1955 to 1959, working on the USS Chicago, a submarine that kept a lookout for Soviet spy subs in the Atlantic during the Cold War.
The VA’s art purchasing practices seem far less important than the scandals about wait times or cockroaches in the kitchen; the VA has plenty of issues regarding wasteful spending. (RELATED: VA Hospital Bought $300,000 Worth Of TVs, Then Stored Them)
McCullough has experienced VA’s inefficiencies first hand. “To go into the VA system, it’s the best of times, it’s the worst of times,” McCullough said. “They’re insufferably slow on some things. But when you really need them, they’re right there.”
McCullough and Mueller believe the sculpture does have an impact in the veterans who receive care at the hospital. “I’ve talked to vets who’ve been served there,” Mueller said. “They appreciate it, they think it’s nice.”
McCullough is sympathetic to the VA. “It’s a colossus of an organization,” he said. “When you get something that big and unwieldy, I don’t know that anyone could control it.”
Kirk’s office agreed that the Hines VA hospital did something right by commissioning a veteran artist, but said the process needs to be a lot better to ensure that taxpayer money is spent to actually help veterans who need medical care.
“Senator Kirk commends the decision to place artwork from a veteran on the Hines VA campus,” a spokesperson for Kirk’s office told TheDCNF. “However, the question here is the VA’s continued lack of transparency. The VA once again failed to disclose the cost of this artwork and the public deserves to know where the money came from and how much was spent.”
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