WASHINGTON -- The FBI has opened a criminal investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs after a scathing watchdog report that found systemic problems in the medical system for military veterans, FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday.
Comey said at a congressional hearing that the investigation was being led by the FBI's field office in Phoenix, where an inspector general report last month confirmed allegations of excessive waiting times and inappropriate scheduling practices at a hospital there.
He did not elaborate on the investigation, but a U.S. law enforcement official said earlier in the day that the Justice Department had formally asked the FBI to assist in reviewing materials provided by the inspector general's office. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss an ongoing criminal investigation on the record.
The report, which followed allegations that 40 patients died while awaiting care at a Phoenix hospital where employees kept a secret waiting list to cover up delays, found that 1,700 veterans seeking treatment at the Phoenix facility were at risk of being "forgotten or lost."
Troubles at the department forced the resignation last month of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
Though the Justice Department has not undertaken a full-fledged investigation, the request for FBI involvement represents an escalation into concerns of possible criminal conduct by VA employees.
Meanwhile, 21 senators from both parties are calling on Attorney General Eric Holder to investigate whether there was criminal wrongdoing at VA medical facilities.
The letter, authored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., along with 19 colleagues, are seeking quick action amid several ongoing reviews being conducted by the VA and the agency's Inspector General.
More than 57,000 veterans have been waiting for up to three months for medical appointments, the VA said in a wide-ranging audit released Monday. An additional 64,000 who enrolled for VA health care over the past decade have never been seen by a doctor, according to the audit.