A nonprofit government watchdog group has filed a formal complaint with the inspector general of the Department of Veterans Affairs alleging that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has exercised improper influence over the bidding process for a long-delayed VA health clinic in Bakersfield.
The letter, sent by Washington, D.C.-based Campaign for Accountability and addressed to VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal, claims the Bakersfield Republican actively promoted a clinic development proposal from San Diego-based SASD Development Group over another proposal by the owners of the current clinic on Westwind Drive.
In its letter, Campaign for Accountability asks the inspector general to "investigate discrepancies" in the competitive bidding process. "Evidence suggests," the letter continues, "House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy may be improperly exerting influence, upending the regular decision-making process."
Brittany Martinez, a spokeswoman for McCarthy's office, flatly denied the allegation.
"First and foremost, the congressman's ultimate goal is to ensure that our veterans can receive the long-awaited care they rightfully deserve, and soon, particularly as a new clinic was authorized by Congress in 2009," Martinez said in an email. The process of awarding a contract to build a new community-based outpatient clinic in Bakersfield, she said, "is up to the VA in determining the merits and eligibility."
SASD was awarded a contract in September 2018 to build a new clinic, Martinez said.
"The aforementioned complaint mentions dates approximately a year after the lease was already awarded by the VA. At no time did the congressman advocate for any party while the VA was processing bids, and only after the VA determined and announced the award in 2018 was the congressman's office ever in touch with or aware of SASD."
In its complaint, the group refers to a letter sent Sept. 4, 2019, from a representative of SASD to McCarthy briefly describing the history of the company’s experience.
"Notably, the person who signed the letter, Steven Doctor, did not include his position with the company," the complaint states, "and closed stating, 'We do appreciate all of the help your office has provided along the way,' indicating the company and Mr. Doctor had been in regular contact with Rep. McCarthy about the matter and that Rep. McCarthy had been using his position to support SASD's proposal."
According to the complaint, a few days later, in his Sept. 9, 2019, testimony before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, McCarthy spoke in favor of SASD's proposal and against Progress for Bakersfield Veterans LLC, the owners of the old clinic, who have proposed to renovate the existing VA clinic.
"Rep. McCarthy claimed that because of the delays in the award process, the VA had doubled the lease payments made to the current facility owner to $2 million per month," the complaint states.
McCarthy's remarks were inaccurate, The Californian reported in October. At the time of his comments, the VA was paying the clinic $172,178 per month.
"While a spokeswoman for Rep. McCarthy acknowledged the inaccuracy in regards to the lease cost, and said the Republican Leader would correct his congressional testimony, he does not appear to have done so," the complaint continues. "In fact, a video of Rep. McCarthy’s inaccurate testimony as well as transcript of his statement with the false claims remain posted on his official congressional website."
According to McCarthy's office, formal protests have delayed the process, but the VA has also made mistakes throughout its own lease award process.
"The VA actually provided the congressman's office with the $2 million monthly figures that he referenced in his committee testimony," his office said via email. "The VA's mistakes throughout the 2018 lease award process have allowed protestors to prevail, and the congressman is hopeful that now the VA will accurately follow its own timeline and execute its procurement process correctly so that a lease award can be announced and Bakersfield veterans have the new clinic facility that they are expecting."
Veterans in Kern County have been waiting more than a decade since Congress authorized the development of a new clinic. Instead the process has languished.
In 2018, in what seemed like a breakthrough, McCarthy announced at a local news conference that a lease had been awarded by the VA to San Diego-based SASD to construct a $40 million facility near Olive and Knudsen drives.
The long-awaited clinic was slated to replace the aging facility on Westwind Drive. But one year after the announcement, no visible work had begun at the development site.
Progress for Bakersfield Veterans LLC, the owners of the old clinic, had filed a protest, making it impossible for VA to move forward, VA spokesman Damian McGee told The Californian last fall. The VA terminated the lease award to SASD last year.
McCarthy's office said the VA failed to follow its own process in the initial lease award, and said McCarthy spoke with the VA secretary about the situation "because it was important that they be held accountable."
"If this entire series of events shows us anything, it is that the VA contracting process is broken," McCarthy's office said. "It was the VA’s incompetence and subsequent protests on the new award that are delaying a necessary new VA clinic." The congressman's office called the missteps and delays "a disservice to veterans in the community."
Allen Hubsch, a partner with Progress for Bakersfield Veterans, said in October they protested the award to SASD because the VA admitted PBV didn't receive a fair shake in the clinic selection process.
The VA admitted to watchdog agencies that it failed to properly evaluate Progress for Bakersfield Veterans' offer to renovate the existing facility, Hubsch said. After that, it was determined that VA had wrongfully awarded the bid to SASD.
"We have been offering a complete renovation of the existing clinic to VA for more than 10 years now, from top to bottom, with a modern, efficient layout and all the latest technology and equipment," he said. "A renovation could be done in a fraction of the time and at a fraction of the cost."
Reached Thursday, Hubsch declined to comment on the complaint sent this week to the VA's inspector general. But he did comment on the VA's performance.
"From what I can tell, VA doesn't understand Bakersfield," Hubsch said. "Bakersfield veterans don't want or deserve a smaller clinic, and the existing clinic is in a much better location than where VA wants to move it."