Tuesday, March 6, 2012. Chaos and violence continue, the US Congress learns more about how the VA asks for X and then spends X-plus without any Congressional authorization, Iraq's LGBT community is again being stalked by death squads, and more.
Chair Bill Johnson: The VA clearly indicates in a letter from Secretary Gould on November 24,2010 that they automatically go to the two-step acquisition process which by definition precludes evaluation of existing lease space as an option of lease spaces for all leases greater than 20,000 feet. Does VA presume that this authorizes them to bypass the requirements of federal acquistion regulations in 38 US Section 8104B.
Robert Neary: No, sir, we do not presume that we've got authority to violate title 38 or the federal acquisition regulations.
This afternoon the US House Veterans Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations held a hearing. Bill Johnson is the Subcommittee Chair, Joe Donnelly is the Ranking Member. Robert Neary is the Acting Executive Director of the Office of Constructin & Facilities Management at the Department of Veterans Affairs and he was joined by the Dept's George Szwarcman (Director of Real Property Services) and Brandi Fate (Director of Capital Asset Management and Support). Robert Neary began his opening remarks before the Subcommittee with what he termed an "update" but what are more popularly known as a "correction."
Robert Neary: In response to a series of questions from the Subcommittee in December 2011, VA provided an incorrect appraisal for the targeted relocated Savannah Outpatient Clinic site. Instead of referencing a 46,85 acre site, VA inadvertently referenced a 16.85 acre location. The appraiser failed to identify that the deed of sale and the tax records did not reflect the same information. Since learning of the discrepancy, VA immediately requested a revised appraisal and provided an update to the Subcommittee on March 2, 2012, acknoledging the error. VA is contracting for another certified appraiser to review the initial appraisal, and provide a determination regarding fair market value of VA's preferred site as of Spring, 2010. Finally, VA is also obtaining a new appraisal that reflects the current land value of the site. VA will review all the appraisal reports concerning the targeted parcel in Savannah in order to determine what appropriate corrective action may be warranted. I want to emphasize that VA only uses appraisers who maintain appropriate licensure and accreditation, in addition to adherence to the Uniform Appraisal Standards for Federal Land Acquisitions, which is standard operating procedure. I would like to apologize to the Committee for the delay in uncovering the facts and provide assurance that response to future inquiries will be more thoroughly investigated.
And before you think, 'At least the VA's being upfront . . .,' no, they are not. They got caught. I'm not referring to Neary himself -- I have no idea who was responsible. But Ranking Member Joe Donnelly explained what was going on:
The VA sought Congressional authorization for the Savannah, Georgia clinic expansion in its FY 2009 budget submission. This authority, for a clinic with 38,900 net usable square feet at a cost of $3.2 million, was provided in October 2008. Sometime after this authorization, the VA epxanded the project by over 45% and is now seeking to lease a clinic with a maximum net usable square footage of 55,193. The VA has not notified Congress or sought additional authorization for this expanison. In addition, although this project was authorized in 2008, construction is just now going forward.
Okay, let's review that. In 2008, the VA had a plan to expand the Savannah clinic and presented it to Congress while Congress was working on the 2009 budget. Congress examined the proposal and signed off on it with funding of $3.2 million. Four years later, construction is only now beginning. Construction was supposed to have already been completed and the expanded facility up and running no later than June of last year. In addition, what VA presented and Congress approved was not good enough for someone(s) who took it upon themselves to expand the plan by nearly 50% ("over 45%"). Why would you do that? Why would you turn in plans for an expansion, get approval and then double what you had planned?
Because you know Congress will foot the bill. The costs will fall under "cost overruns" and Congress isn't going to default on payment to various contractors and subcontractors overseeing the work and construction workers doing the building. (Nor am I suggesting that Congress should. The fault is not on the building end, the fault's with VA management and supervision.) Most likely, Mr./Ms. X knew that the Savannah project was going to be a big one. They presented Congress with plans for only half the work needed knowing that once the project was started, it would be cost overruns and Congress wouldn't pull the plug. What they did wasn't 'creative.' What they did was most likely fraud.
And if that term ("fraud") seems too strong or if someone wants to argue it's an accident. It happens too often to be an accident.
Ranking Member Joe Donnelly: The clinic in Savannah is not the only project which the VA has expanded after seeking authorization. Projects in Atlanta, Georgia; Eugene, Oregon; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Grand Rapids, Michigan; Green Bay, Wisconsin and Greenville, North Carolina are all slated to be substantially larger than authorized by Congress.
Sequestration is very likely this year -- meaning the 2013 Fiscal Year budget will face automatic cuts. The country has a huge deficit which is supposedly this huge concern. So why is VA being allowed -- and it's not just VA -- to get away with cost overruns?
Congress needs to have an automatic policy regarding cost overruns. Again, I don't subscribe to denying payment to the various contractors and construction workers. But I do think if you have a cost overrun, you need to be responsible. And by "responsible," I mean out of job. You're supposed to have planned this. They can make an exception for inflation. They can even allow a 15% overrun not resulting in termination. But when you're project has increased over 45% by what Congress approved, you need to be out of a job.
That's because you're either too incompentent to oversee a project in the first place or you're not providing the oversight needed. Either way, the taxpayer can't afford you and your mistakes.
There need to be clear consequences here. We are willing (wrongly, I believe) to automatically sentence someone to prison under "three strikes and you're out" laws. But we have no law requiring that those who waste -- intentionally or due to incompetence -- taxpayer monies aren't immediately fired? It's past time for departments to start being held accountable. And it's very clear that VA and others will not hold themselves accountable so Congress needs to start providing some input.
It is not fair that everyone else from a shoplifter to, yes, even a member of Congress faces some form of accountability (Congressional members can be kicked out in any election if enough voters don't feel they're doing their jobs) but those responsible for cost overruns are never disciplined, never lose a job, never lose a night's sleep.
Again, you may think, 'Well it was just a mistake . . .' No, it wasn't. Back to Subcommittee Chair Johnson.
Subcommitee Chair Bill Johnson: Why did the three annual lease status reports reported to Congress since 2009 continue to repeat the original authorization amounts when the VA clearly knew their efforts were not consistent with the Congressional limits.
Robert Neary: Sir, I-I -- I think our current process for the past several years has been to notify the Congress -- to notify the Committees on Veterans Affairs when we, uh, are planning to enter into a lease that exceeds the, uh, uh, what was authorized by greater than 10%. And our practice is to do that after we have received market-based pricing based on our procurement. Now, in this case, significant time has passed since the original authorization. Uh. But-but that's the reason that we have not, uh, notified the Committee. We're waiting for the, uh, price proposals to receive, uh, through competition.
Subcommittee Chair Bill Johnson: Okay, I'd like to point out that the Green Bay clinic is a similar scenario the FY '09 budget authority request was for 70,600 square feet, two-million-eight-thousand annual rent and $3,883,000 initial payment. Total budget authorized over 20 years was 44 -- I'm sorry, 44,043,000. As recently as the 2012 submission to Congress, the VA has indicated in the lease status report that Green Bay lease was not changed from FY '09 authorization request, however, SFOVA-101-09-RP-0200, issued 6-24-2009 was for 161,525 square feet -- 228% higher than authorized. And news reports indicate that the Green Bay lease has now been awarded.
Repeating, for the 2009 budget, they claimed they were requesting for 70,600 square feet. They knew at least by June of 2009 that they were actually going to be dealing with 161,525 feet. They didn't notify Congress, they stayed silent for years. This was fraud. When you present that you need X but you actually need greater than that amount and you know that once the project's started, it will be very hard for Congress to pull the plug, then you're engaging in fraud.
You're presenting false numbers -- fraudulent numbers -- to Congress because they will get approved while the whole time you're intending to spend much more. You're defrauding the taxpayer.
Chair Bill Johnson: Uhm, let me ask you another question. Has the VA already paid approximately 100,000 or so for a purchase option on the land in Savannah.
Robert Neary: That's correct, Mr. Chairmn.
Chair Bill Johnson: Under what authority does VA purchase an option to buy real property?
Robert Neary: I'd like to ask Mr. Szwarcman to answer that.
George Szwarcman: . . . [Microphone not on] Oh, thank you, Mr. Chairman.
Robert Neary: Okay, it's on.
George Szwarcman: Okay. Uhm . . . [Clears throat] VA -- According to a decision, or an opinion by the Office of General Counsel, VA does, uh, have authority to purchase options to purchase real property. Uh, the only distinction I would make in this case is that VA is purchasing an option for -- an assignable option -- or I should say -- yeah -- purchases an option to buy that property which will be assigned to the eventual developer. So it is never really the intent of VA to acquire a piece of property such as in Savannah for VA to own.
Chair Bill Johnson: Uhm, you know, I think the operative word here is to purchase an option. The red book makes it clear that agencies need a specific statutory authority to purchase an option. This is a separate authority than the authority to buy real property outright. I can refer you to that -- to the red book. A quick search of VA's authorities do not provide an authority for their action. So I'm a little bit lost with that. There's a difference between purchasing an option and purchasing property outright. Has the VA obligated itself to purchase the land?
Robert Neary: Uh, no, sir, we've not.
Chair Bill Johnson: And if the land is not purchased, will VA get any of that money back?
Robert Neary: No, sir.
Chair Bill Johnson: So that's taxpayer dollars down the drain.
Robert Neary: If a decision were made not to acquire that site, then the money would be lost, yes.
There is so much more from that hearing I would like to cover but there's a big story out of Iraq that will be ignored by many -- if 2009 was any indication -- and we don't ignore it here so we need to move over to Iraq now.
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission has today received reports from Iraq of a wave of targeted killings of individuals who are perceived to be gay or lesbian. According to Iraqi human rights activists, in early February 2012, an unidentified group posted death threats against "the adulterous individuals" in the predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and Basra. The threats gave the individuals, whose names and ages were listed, four days to stop their behavior or else face the wrath of God, and were to be carried out by the Mujahedin. According to sources inside Iraq, as the result of this new surge of anti-gay violence close to 40 people have been kidnapped, brutally tortured and murdered. The Iraqi authorities have neither responded to this targeted violence nor have they publicly denounced it. It is widely believed that these atrocities are being committed by a group of the Shiite militia.
All US aid to Iraq should immediately stop. For those who are not aware, this wave of attacks is only the latest wave. The White House should have addressed it earlier. They didn't. And now the same problem all over again. April 13, 2009, Amnesty International issued the following:
Amnesty International has written to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki expressing grave concern about a reported spate of killing of young men solely because of their sexual orientation and calling for urgent and concerted action by the government to bring those responsible to justice and to afford effective protection to the gay community in Iraq.
Over the last few weeks at least 25 boys and men are reported to have been killed in Baghdad because theyw ere, or were pereceived to be, gay. The killings are said to have been carried out by armed Shi'a militamen as well as by members of the tribes and families of the victims. Certain religious leaders, especially in al-Sadr City neighbourhood, are also reported in recent weeks to have urged their followers to take action to eradicate homosexuality in Iraqi society, in terms which appear effectively to constitute at least an implicit, if not explicit, incitement to violence against members of the gay community. Three corpses of gay men are reported to have been found in al-Sadr City on 2 and 3 April 2009; two of the bodies are said to have had pieces of paper bearing the word "pervert" attached to them, suggetsting that the victims had been murdered on account of their sexual identitiy.
In the letter sent to the Prime Minister Amnesty International expressed concern at the government's failure to publicly condemn the killings and ensure that they are promptly and effective investigated, and that the perpetrators are brought to justice. The letter also drew attention to reported statements by one senior police officer that appear to condone or even encourage the targeting of members of the gay community in Baghdad, in gross breach of the law and international human rights standards.
Amnesty International reminded the Iraqi government that it is a fundamental principle of international human rights law, including international treaties that have been ratified by and are binding on Iraq, that "All human beings are equal in dignity and rights" and are entitled to all rights and freedom set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, without distinction of any kind, such as on grounds of race, sex, religion, political, or other status, including sexual orientation and gender identity. The organization called on Prime Minister al-Maliki [to] take immediate and concrete steps to address this sitatuion, including to publicly condemn, unreservedly and in the strongest terms, all attacks on members of the gay community or others on account of their sexual, gender, ethnic or other identity, and to commit to ensuring that those responsible for such abuses are identified and brought to justice. Further, police officers or other officials who encourage, condone or acquiesce in such attacks must also be held to account and either prosecuted or disciplined and removed from office.
This morning AFP is reported that signs are going up around the Sadr City neighborhood of Baghdad threatening to kill a list of people alleged to be gay. The posters are put out by the Brigades of the Righteous and AFP translates the posters as stating, "We will punish you, perverts" and "We will get you, puppies" has been scrawled on some posters -- "puppies" being slang for gay males in Iraq. The Australian carries the AFP report here. Liz Sly and Caesar Ahmed (LAT's Babylon & Beyond) report the message on the posters included, "If you don't cease your perverted acts, you will get your fair punishment." The reporters also noted that a Sadr City resident saw a poster with approximately 15 names (of people who would be killed) written on it. These posters are going up around Sadr City. Where is the United Nations condemnation? Where is the White House, where is the US State Dept? Chris Johnson (Washington Blade) notes the only member of the US Congress to condemn the targeting of Iraq's LGBT community, US House Rep Jared Polis and reports:
["] Noel Clay, a State Department spokesperson, said U.S. officials "condemn the persecution of LGBTs in Iraq," but he couldn't confirm whether the violence they're facing in Iraq is because of their sexual orientation. Clay noted that while homosexuality is against the law in Iraq, the death penalty is not the punishment for homosexual acts. ["]
And yet at the start of this month the State Dept's Iraqi Desk John Fleming was telling Kilian Melloy (The Edge) that, "Homosexuality not a crime in Iraq." He was also stating that same-sex relations were of no conern to Iraqis ("immaterial"). That is laughable. Noel Clay has stated that same-sex relations have been criminalized in Iraq so unless or until the State Dept issues a public clarification, we will operate under the belief that Clay is correct. Attempts by the press to figure this out has been stonewalled.
Barack Obama never called it out. Not once. In the 80s, Ronald Reagan was US President. The AIDS crisis emerged. When Reagan died in 2004, his non-response to the AIDS crisis was noted. From Allen White's "Reagan's AIDS Legacy: Silence equals death" (San Francisco Chronicle):
As America remembers the life of Ronald Reagan, it must never forget his shameful abdication of leadership in the fight against AIDS. History may ultimately judge his presidency by the thousands who have and will die of AIDS.
Following discovery of the first cases in 1981, it soon became clear a national health crisis was developing. But President Reagan's response was "halting and ineffective," according to his biographer Lou Cannon. Those infected initially with this mysterious disease -- all gay men -- found themselves targeted with an unprecedented level of mean-spirited hostility.
A significant source of Reagan's support came from the newly identified religious right and the Moral Majority, a political-action group founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell. AIDS became the tool, and gay men the target, for the politics of fear, hate and discrimination. Falwell said "AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals." Reagan's communications director Pat Buchanan argued that AIDS is "nature's revenge on gay men."
With each passing month, death and suffering increased at a frightening rate. Scientists, researchers and health care professionals at every level expressed the need for funding. The response of the Reagan administration was indifference.
Even during the non-stop death pageantry, the glorification and the worship, there was still time for a small bit of reality. Barack Obama better be thinking about his legacy. His silence as Iraq's LGBT community (as well as people merely thought to be LGBT) is targeted and killed is appalling. There's no excuse for it. And history will not provide one. History's provided none for Ronald Reagan -- Barack's hero, remember?
Today the Government of Iraq represents a fully sovereign and democratic country. As such, it must protect all of its citizens including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from hate-filled violence and death at the hands of armed militias. Vigilantes who perpetuate the targeted killing of those perceived to be gay or lesbian must not be tolerated in a new Iraq. We have seen these atrocities before. In 2009 vigilantes murdered hundreds of Iraqi individuals for their perceived sexual orientation. There are no excuses for such heinous human rights violations. We demand that the Iraqi Government put a stop to the wanton persecution and killing of gay people, and that the perpetrators punished.
I had a confirmed report in October 2011 from a gay young man who lives in Baghdad, his name is Haider, that al-Mehdi militia are threatening that they are coming back and they will kill gays. For some reason some of the militia men knew about him being gay because he was told they came looking for him, so he fled his home and was hiding. Last I heard from him was in late November but don't know what happened to him. Many men get kidnanpped and go missing all the time. He also reported that this has been happening to many of his friends.
For those who missed the 2009 wave of attacks (not the first and not the last), the only non-LGBT program on Pacifica Radio to cover the attacks was Lila Garrets' Connect the Dots on KPFK. LA City Council member Bill Rosendahl raised the issue on her show June 1, 2009 (see that day's snapshot for the exchange -- you can contact KPFK about ordering a copy of the show; however, there is no free archive of that broadcast available any longer). In terms of big media, the leader was the Denver Post. The New York Times, despite having people over there to report on Iraq, had no real interest in the story an only filed one story after other outlets were reporting on it. Their lack of interest was not unlike the lack of interest they showed in the 80s when the AIDS crisis emerged. By their patterns of silence, they do reveal themselves.
If you've forgotten or weren't around during the 2009 coverage, from the June 1, 2009 snapshot, we'll note some resources from this site and the media coverage of the targeting:
And if you're wondering about the administration's response? Barack never called it out. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised the issue and was the highest ranking official to do so publicly. While this was taking place, the State Dept spokesperson never felt the need to note it at the start of a briefing or to express sorrow or regret for the deaths -- maybe if they'd been known as Shi'ite LGBTs, the State Dept would have given a damn? And in all the press briefings, only once in 2009 was the State Dept ever asked about the issue in a press briefing. And that question? It came from the BBC. Of all the reporters in the room, day after day, killing time and telling really sad jokes, only the BBC ever felt the need to raise the issue of the killing of Iraqi LGBTs. Only the BBC.
News of the latest atrocities comes on the eve of a United Nations panel on queer rights to be held in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 7, marking the first time the UN's Human Rights Council focuses on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The panel is also taking place in the midst of opposition by 56 Islamic states in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which refuse to acknowledge gay rights as human rights.
This isn't a minor issue. This is a major issue and we're not going to ignore it. Giving the issue and news the due it requires means we don't have time for Tareq al-Hashemi and we don't have time for ExxonMobil and many other things -- including Lynne Stewart. We'll pick those up tomorrow. But this is a serious issue and too many walked away and remained silent on this in 2009. There's no excuse for it to have ever happened, there is no excuse for alleged friend of the LGBT community, 'fiercest advocate for gay rights' (or whatever Michelle Obama called him) to have been silent in 2009. He needs to understand that silence on this in an election year will be unacceptable. The media needs to understand that their silence is being followed and registered as well.