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Sen. Pat Roberts criticizes VA, praises Koch brothers to Wichita audience that includes opponent Milton Wolf

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, May 30, 2014, at 7:39 p.m.
  • Updated Saturday, May 31, 2014, at 12:15 a.m.

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Sen. Pat Roberts

Sen. Pat Roberts reacts to resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki. The VA has been plagued with complaints of long waits for treatment in its hospital system. Roberts spoke at a meeting of the Republican Pachyderm Club in Wichita, KS. May 30,2014

Sen. Pat Roberts on Friday lauded the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki amid a growing scandal over inadequate care at VA hospitals, but he criticized President Obama’s handling of the resignation.

Roberts spoke to the Wichita Pachyderm Club after meeting with officials at the Robert J. Dole VA Medical Center in Wichita.

Roberts noted Shinseki was a military hero, a former four-star general who had suffered wounds in the Vietnam War. Roberts said he had asked Obama to request Shinseki’s resignation and share responsibility for problems at the VA.

But Obama instead threw Shinseki under the bus, Roberts said.

“My point was in asking the president to at least acknowledge some kind of accountability,” Roberts said. “But this president’s never going to do that … that’s not what he does.”

Roberts’ audience included his most persistent opponent in the August Republican primary, Overland Park physician Milton Wolf.

Wolf did not challenge Roberts at the Pachyderm Club meeting, but did speak to reporters in the building lobby, claiming that Roberts is ducking debating him and has swung to the right in “an election-year conversion.”

Roberts said he is confident that the local VA facility is free from the problems that have surfaced elsewhere, such as enormous wait times and secret waiting lists for services at the VA hospital in Phoenix.

He said he also had checked out the Topeka VA hospital and was on his way to the one in Kansas City on Friday afternoon.

Roberts said he’s co-sponsoring legislation giving complete authority to the VA secretary to clean house by firing or demoting poor-performing employees.

Roberts said officials at the VA in Wichita complained of having to follow progressive discipline, a series of escalating oral and written warnings, responses and appeals, before firing an employee.

“Folks if we don’t get that cleaned up, it seems to me we’re going to be in a lot of problems,” Roberts said.

He also said he would support an independent investigation of the VA to determine who’s responsible for decisions that led to deficient care and unscrupulous practices.

“And hold them accountable, and yes, that I believe that should include the possibility of criminal charges as well,” Roberts said.

Roberts also blasted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada for his ongoing criticism of Charles and David Koch, the owners of Koch Industries who have spent unknown millions of dollars promoting tax cuts and opposing regulation of businesses.

Roberts described the Koch brothers as “two great Kansans” and Reid’s criticism as “absurd.”

He said the Kochs have given more than $1 billion to cancer research, the Smithsonian Institution and the arts in New York and Wichita.

Roberts said in trying to win elections, Reid and Democrats have singled out the Kochs as evil for their political spending but ignored spending by left-leaning billionaires and celebrities.

Roberts also criticized Reid for backing a proposed constitutional amendment to reverse recent Supreme Court decisions that allow unlimited political spending by billionaires and corporations. Roberts characterized the proposed amendment as an attack on free speech.

“They (Democrats) are not upset over wealthy donors, they are upset over conservative wealthy donors,” Roberts said. “Harry Reid wants to put on a James Madison wig and say he’s going to change the First Amendment.”

Roberts said Reid doesn’t have the votes to change the Constitution, but he plans to match him speech for speech in the Senate.

“I’m not going to let this go on any longer, and let him rant and rave on the Senate floor,” Roberts said. “And I do intend to call out Harry Reid’s attempt to stifle free speech at every turn.”

A few minutes after Roberts finished, Wolf held his own press availability in the lobby of the Bank of America building, nine floors below the Petroleum Club where the Pachyderms meet.

He said Roberts had dodged many invitations to debate either in Kansas or the Washington metropolitan area.

Wolf, who presents himself as a conservative alternative to Roberts, criticized the senator for votes to raise taxes, to raise the federal debt ceiling and to confirm former Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as Health and Human Services secretary and Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

Wolf said since he started running against Roberts, the senator has swung far to the right on all those issues.

“That’s not an election-year conversion, that’s an election year confession,” he said.

Although Roberts has touted his high ratings from conservative oganizations, Wolf said the scorecards from 2012 and before show him to be a much less conservative lawmaker than he’s been the past two years.

Roberts said he hadn’t noticed that Wolf was in the audience for his speech and that he didn’t have time to meet with him, because he had to get to his appointment at the VA hospital in Kansas city.

“I’m not going to change my official duties just to have some dreamed-up kind of a debate,” Roberts said. “And if you’re going to have a debate, you better get Dennis Pyle in the mix.”

Pyle, a state senator from Hiawatha, is the third prominent candidate to express an interest in the GOP Senate nomination in the Aug. 5 primary.

The other two candidates in the Republican primary are D.J. Smith of Osawatomie and Alvin Zahnter of Russell.

In the Democratic primary, Topeka District Attorney Chad Taylor is facing Patrick Wiesner, a Lawrence tax attorney.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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