Congress

Florida lawmakers continue clash with VA Secretary Wilkie over evictions

Members say offices in VA facilities were closed because Wilkie took offense to grilling from Mast in April hearing

From left, Reps. Brian Mast, R-Fla., Darren Soto, D-Fla., and Stephanie Murphy, D-Fla., conduct a news conference Friday in the Capitol Visitor Center on the eviction of Congressional offices from Veterans Affairs Department facilities. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A bipartisan group of Florida House members led by GOP Rep. Brian Mast continues to clash with Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie over their eviction from offices in VA facilities.

The lawmakers have claimed Wilkie directed VA hospitals in Florida to remove members from small constituent service offices in their facilities as payback for a grilling Wilkie received from Mast at a congressional oversight hearing earlier this year.

[2,226 stairs can’t keep double amputee Rep. Brian Mast from reaching the top]

“Let’s be clear ... This decision came from Washington, not Orlando or West Palm Beach.” Rep. Stephanie Murphy has  told NPR.

“Our partners in our local hospitals see the value that we offer. And so this isn’t an issue with them. This is a bureaucratic decision that’s coming from Washington,” the Florida Democrat said.

Murphy was one of five Democrats in the state to follow Mast’s lead and open offices in VA medical facilities that serve their constituents.

All six were recently sent eviction notices, which Wilkie said were not influenced by retribution.

“[The] VA’s decision to reclaim the office space in question is not related any Congressional hearing and is rooted instead in the need to maximize the clinical space in VA medical facilities,” Wilkie wrote in a letter to Mast on Sept. 13. The letter accused Mast of making “misleading public statements” about the nature of the evictions in a Fox News interview earlier this month.

Mast’s office at the West Palm Beach VA facility is roughly 100 square feet. The hospital spans 1.7 million square feet.

At the hearing in April, Mast, who lost both legs and a finger in an explosion in Afghanistan while working as a bomb technician, demanded to know when Wilkie would visit a VA hospital in West Palm Beach, where the congressman said there are urgent security issues and many patients die by suicide.

“As soon as possible,” Wilkie replied, before being interrupted by Mast.

“I was a bomb technician,” Mast said. “We used to always use vague terms like that so people would never know exactly when we would get on the ground. I would like a more specific answer.”

A spokesperson for the VA told “Fox & Friends” in a statement earlier this month that the VA is requisitioning the offices to fulfill its primary mission of “delivering medical care” to veterans.

“The department will use the space previously dedicated to 6 members of congress for the provision of medical care services. Moreover, no law authorizes the Department to dedicate its space for Members of Congress to provide constituent services. Past bills authorizing the Department to do so have not been enacted,” the VA statement said.

Mast introduced a bill to the House in May specifically authorizing lawmakers to open congressional field offices in VA facilities.

The bill was quickly referred to the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, where it awaits further action.

The Florida lawmakers leading the crusade to allow congressional offices to remain in VA facilities said the constituent services they provide has saved lives.

“Since we opened our Constituent Services offices at the Orlando VA Hospital, Team Soto has met with over 800 veterans and worked on over 400 cases," Rep. Darren Soto said at a press conference last week.

"In one instance, our office helped prevent a suicide and assisted with getting our local hero the mental health treatment he deserved for defending our nation," the Florida Democrat said.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.