As part of our coverage of the 2016 elections, NHPR is broadcasting a series of conversations with candidates about the issues of the day.
All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte on Friday. Ayotte, a Republican, is facing a challenge from Democrat and N.H. Governor Maggie Hassan in a race that's drawing national attention.
During the interview, Ayotte addressed recent reports of wait-time record manipulation at the VA, as well as how she thinks her opponent should address her ties to a teacher barred from the New Hampshire prep school where Hassan's husband used to work as principal.
The teacher was dismissed as a result of allegations of sexual misconduct with students at Phillips Exeter Academy, but then appeared on a list of supporters of Maggie Hassan's 2012 campaign for governor.
Listen to the interview or scroll down to read the transcript.
You met with Manchester VA director Danielle Ocker earlier today (Friday). What did you hope to learn from her?
What I learned from Director Ocker is that, first of all, the Inspector General report that came out this week they took very seriously. I was glad to hear that. The information that was in that report was that the scheduling and the wait list data at Manchester has been manipulated, scheduled, not properly reported, as early as 2012. So this information does date back several years. They did make changes at the time to make sure that that would not happen any further. Since she has become the new director there, they’ve also put in further steps to ensure they’re meeting with the schedulers and making sure they’re accurately reporting information given from vets and on how quickly they’re getting responded to. And so I felt that it was important that she was able to tell me today what steps they have put into place to make sure this would not happen again.
She also pointed out that the VA system as a whole has…the scheduling system is very difficult and can be confusing. The VA is going to be changing that system. It needs to be a more transparent, simpler system, to make sure that we’re accurately tracking how long our veterans are in the system and make sure that we don’t have veterans waiting, really waiting for care when they shouldn’t be.
So did you walk away from the meeting feeling confident that veterans today are being scheduled in an appropriate manner?
I felt confident that the systems that are in place today are different from what was found. The new director is holding people accountable. I think there needs to be improvements because we could have better system in place. The director pointed that out to me today. How it is kept, how it is tracked…to make it simpler and more important. In terms of how it’s being done today, you know, they have put in more steps to make sure that it is not being manipulated. They are having regular meetings with the schedulers to verify how they’re taking in the information from our veterans. So I was certainly pleased to hear that and that they were taking this very, very seriously.
I think overall, of course, there can always be more improvements, and I was very glad to talk to the director about that, and also that she’s very open to us all working together [to] make sure that we’re properly serving our veterans.
Shifting gears, Senator Ayotte, recently in Politico you were quoted as saying that Governor Maggie Hassan has questions to answer regarding the teacher at Philips Exeter Academy who allegedly had an inappropriate sexual relationship with a student. What are the questions Governor Hassan needs to answer?
Well I would just say—listen, I think we learned in the last days, certainly, following this story, that there’ve been, that there’s further investigations being conducted by the Exeter Police Department, and that’s where I think the focus has to be, making sure that students are safe and that we allow them to fully conduct that investigation. To me, that’s where the focus has been and where it needs to be.
I will say, having served as Attorney General, that the…more of these allegations coming forward, it’s important that we support victims, too, and that they feel comfortable coming forward that they will have that support, that there be transparency on the campus about this issue, and, you know, obviously, in terms of Governor Hassan, her husband was principal at the time, and you know, I think that, I just hope that she will answer any questions that she’s asked about it.
But what questions are there? What questions should she answer?
Well, again, I think that, I don’t obviously know all the facts, only if you look at the situation, even what has happened so far, you know, she’s given several statements, some of them are different, and so I think it’s important just that she clarify and offer as much information as she can about this matter, but most importantly I think the focus has to be on supporting the efforts of the police in Exeter to make sure that they’re able to fully conduct what they need to do and that there’s transparency with the student body.
So, not to belabor this, but I do want to ask once more: What issues should she clarify? If she’s given inconsistent answers, which ones should she clarify?
I just think that, again, to be clear, that she should just make any questions that are posed to her by anyone who is involved in looking at this matter, I would hope that obviously she would make sure that she answers those questions, and I’m sure she will.