Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary Robert Wilkie defended his position to evict Rep. Brian Mast (R-Fla.) and five other members of Congress from their office spaces in two Florida facilities while touting the department’s improvement under President Donald Trump.
In a letter sent on Friday and obtained by IJR, Wilkie addressed Mast’s criticism of the VA’s removal of him and five other members — Reps. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), Lois Frankel (D-Fla.), Darren Soto (D-Fla.), and Stephanie Murphy (D-Fla.) — from their office spaces in the West Palm Beach and Orlando VA Medical Centers.
In a Thursday interview with IJR, Mast said that he was kicked out of his space because the VA facilities exist to give medical care to veterans and congressional offices like his do not exist inside other government agencies.
Mast said that the space he was using was “the size of a closet” and that he planned to fight the decision “tooth and nail.”
Wilkie accused the Florida congressman of being “party to” or making “several misleading public statements” regarding the decision to evict, transparency at the VA, and veteran suicides.
The VA secretary claimed that Mast “implied, without evidence,” in a recent “Fox and Friends” interview that the reason the department reclaimed the space was “related to a congressional hearing 5 months ago.” Wilkie explained that the former office space will be used for the hospital’s “veterans’ smoking cessation program.”
Wilkie also claimed that Mast “falsely implied” that he “could not conduct congressional oversight and constituent services” without his office in the VA hospital.
The VA secretary wrote that “on the contrary,” Mast could take care of his constituency and perform congressional oversight from his congressional offices, adding that he was “one of only six members of Congress” with offices in VA hospitals and that “none of the other 529 members of Congress” are asking for offices like his.
He went on to claim that the Florida congressman “stated, without evidence,” that the reason the VA reclaimed the space “was done to avoid transparency and accountability.”
“To be clear, under this administration, the department is more transparent and accountable than ever before. Since President Trump’s inauguration, the VA became the first hospital system in the nation to post online our wait times, opioid prescription rates, and chief executive travel.”
Wilkie also pointed out that the president had “signed into law the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act and the VA Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection” to “help protect” the department employees who “expose problems within VA.”
He then said that Mast’s “implication about lack of progress on suicide and mental health flies in the face” of all the steps that Trump has taken to address the issues while in office.
“He is the first and only president to declare suicide prevention a national health priority,” wrote Wilkie. “And you know that under this president, we not only have same-day mental health services, but also the largest mental health budget in history.”
Wilkie also criticized the Thursday press release that Mast sent out claiming that “no other federal agency” has faced so many crises like the VA.
The VA secretary claimed that, “while that was true” of the department under former President Barack Obama, Trump’s VA has “done more in the last two and a half years than previous administrations have in decades” to bring reform to the agency.
“I believe we share the goals of helping veterans and improving VA services,” concluded Wilkie. “But providing veterans and the public at large with inaccurate information in your capacity as a lawmaker undermines your stated message about helping veterans and honoring their service to our great nation.”
Mast’s office has not yet responded to IJR’s request for comment.