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Late-night fireworks on Capitol Hill as VA officials face congressional ire

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May 28, 2014: From left, Dr. Thomas Lynch, assistant deputy under secretary for health for clinical operations at the Veterans Health Administration; Joan Mooney, the assistant secretary for congressional and legislative affairs at the Department of Veterans Affairs; and Michael Huff, a congressional relations officer with the Department of Veterans Affairs, testify before the House Committee on Veterans Affairs in Washington. (AP)

"We've lost true north," lamented VA Assistant Deputy Secretary for Health Thomas Lynch late Wednesday night. Lynch testified at a rare nocturnal hearing before the House Veterans Affairs Committee probing the scandal about secret wait-lists. The hearing didn't start until nearly 7:30 p.m. ET Wednesday and ended shortly before midnight.

The lateness of the hour may not explain why the VA's compass is spinning these days. But the late show by the committee was certainly an effort by lawmakers to shine light on a political scandal in the dark of night.

Last week, committee Chairman Jeff Miller, R-Fla., ordered subpoenas to produce the testimony of three VA figures: Lynch, Assistant VA Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs Joan Mooney and VA Congressional Relations Officer Michael Huff. Miller slated the hearing for Wednesday night because lawmakers had been absent from Washington for the Memorial Day holiday. The House was out of session Tuesday. Most lawmakers weren't expected to jet back into Washington until Wednesday night for a set of roll call votes on the floor on unrelated matters. And if the witnesses didn't show up on their own, Miller was prepared to compel their attendance on Friday -- by enforcing the subpoena. During daylight hours. 

As recently as Tuesday, Miller wasn't sure if the VA witnesses were coming. He dashed off a nastygram to Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, saying it was to his "absolute bewilderment" that he had no confirmation of those witnesses planning to appear Wednesday night.

The VA finally said the witnesses would materialize. But the VA wasn't completely cooperative. The VA asked Miller if the committee could excuse Huff "out of concern for the morale of lower-level VA employees." They also wanted the chance to deliver opening statements. Miller goodnighted that request, characterizing it as "beyond presumptuous."

No one's ever seen a fireworks show during the day. And it didn't take long for members of the Veterans Affairs Committee to light a few rhetorical Roman candles Wednesday night. The hearing came just hours after the Office of Inspector General released a damning report effectively confirming that workers at the Phoenix VA covered up long wait times, in order to make their internal numbers look good. 

"I will not stand for a department cover-up," charged Miller. "We expect VA to be forthcoming. But unfortunately, it takes repeated requests and threats of compulsion to get VA to bring their own people here."

But just because VA officials were on Capitol Hill didn't mean all of their information pleased lawmakers.

Minutes into the meeting, Huff cited a discussion with Lynch and others about the scandal. Miller asked what was said during the conclave.

"I believe that's what he said," Huff said, referring to one conversation with a colleague.

Miller immediately challenged if Huff was accurate in his recollection.

"I took notes," said a flummoxed Huff. "I don't have them in front of me today."

"If you have notes, why haven't those notes been provided to this committee?" challenged Miller, indicating that he believed the VA stumbled in complying with a subpoena to provide documents to the committee about the scandal.

"I turned over my documents to the (VA) Office of the General Counsel," said Huff.

Moments later, Mooney began citing instructions from the General Counsel, reading verbatim from a card.

"Can you say anything without reading your prepared notes?" hectored Miller. "Until the VA understand that we are deadly serious, you can expect us to be over your shoulder every single day."

And night apparently. The hearing bled deep into the evening, the question of Huff's missing notes still vexing committee members.

Around 11:20 p.m. ET, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, posed a question where the VA officials again invoked the General Counsel's Office.

"I believe there is an assistant general counsel in the room," quipped Miller.

In a moment reminiscent of the old TV show "To Tell the Truth," lawmakers, aides and the public peered around the hearing, looking to see if the correct "contestant" might stand after some feinting. Sure enough, following some shuffling three rows from the back, a man rose wearing a grey suit and blue-striped tie -- Richard Hipolit. Miller asked Hipolit to approach the witness table for a few ad hoc questions. Hipolit squeezed in using Huff's microphone on the end.

"And while you're here, can you find out why Mr. Huff's notes weren't delivered as part of the subpoena?" asked Miller.

"Yes, I'll work on that," replied Hipolit.

But whether the witnesses were formally called to appear or just plucked from the audience seemed to matter little to Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.

"You are here to serve yourselves and not the men and women who have made extraordinary sacrifices," upbraided the Colorado Republican. "All of you, I think, have got to find something else to do."

A particularly sharp exchange unfolded between Rep. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., and Mooney. Walorski peppered Mooney with a battery of questions, all as Mooney tried desperately to get a word in edgewise.

"May I finish?" asked an exasperated Mooney.

"No!" retorted Walorski. "I only have five minutes."

Walorski then complained: "I have more questions tonight than I had when I walked in here. I know less tonight."

"How can you stand in a mirror and look at yourself ... and not throw up knowing that you've got people out there," queried Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., of Lynch.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who spent nearly a quarter century in the National Guard, tried to interpret some of the anger directed at the witness, saying the invective wasn't personal.

"Members of Congress are doing what they should do. They're channeling the American public," said Walz.

The hearing finished, short of the witching hour, and people spilled out of the room.

"I was not able to identify any secret lists," said Lynch.

"There are secret lists. There are multiple lists," countered Miller moments later to reporters in the corridor.

But what wasn't a secret is that a hearing which started at nightfall was now approaching morning. And anything the sides debated Wednesday night still wouldn't be resolved by Thursday. 

Capitol Attitude is a weekly column written by members of the Fox News Capitol Hill team. Their articles take you inside the halls of Congress, and cover the spectrum of policy issues being introduced, debated and voted on there.