U.S. attorney: Investigation into VA deaths a 'top priority'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Demand for answers escalated as federal officials promised Friday to conduct a sweeping investigation into suspicious deaths at a Veterans Affairs hospital in West Virginia.

U.S Attorney Bill Powell confirmed that his office is involved in an "ongoing and comprehensive federal criminal investigation" into the deaths of up to 11 patients at the Louis A. Johnson VA Medical Center in Clarksburg. At least two of the deaths have been ruled homicides, according to attorneys representing families of men who died.

Powell called the investigation a "top priority" and said the investigation began as soon as potential criminal activity was discovered.

"We fully understand the desire for a speedy resolution and need for closure," Powell said. "The VA will continue to coordinate with the affected families, but in order to protect the integrity of the investigation, we will not be making any additional comments until the investigation is complete."

The FBI and the VA Office of Inspector General are helping with the investigation.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and VA Secretary Robert Wilkie have each called for an expedited investigation.

Manchin, a Democrat, was headed to the facility for a tour and meetings with hospital staff and veterans Friday afternoon. He said Thursday that he spoke with U.S. Attorney General William Barr about the deaths and has been assured that the Department of Justice will provide resources during the investigation.

The FBI has referred questions to the U.S. attorney's office, which until Friday had declined to confirm the investigation. The VA's inspector general has confirmed he is investigating "potential wrongdoing resulting in patient deaths" at the hospital.

Manchin says the VA inspector general told his office about the opening of a medical and criminal investigation of the hospital in July 2018, after at least nine patients were diagnosed with unexplained low blood sugar. He said he told Barr in a letter that he has "grave concerns over the pace of the investigation."

Wilkie told Fox News on Thursday that he agrees with Manchin's call to speed things up.

"It is time for the inspector general ... to finally end this investigation to answer the questions that our grieving families have," he said.

Attorneys representing the families of two veterans say their deaths at the facility were ruled homicides.

Attorney Tony O'Dell represents the estate of Army Sgt. Felix Kirk McDermott. He's filed notice of a pending lawsuit that says the 82-year-old was wrongly injected with a fatal dose of insulin at the hospital in April 2018.

Attorney David Glover told The Associated Press on Thursday that George Nelson Shaw Sr., a retired member of the Air Force, also died at the hospital in April 2018 from a wrongful insulin injection. He was 81 years old.

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VA Secretary Robert Wilkie
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 02: Robert Wilkie testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing to be defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill November 2, 2017 in Washington, DC. Nominated by President Donald Trump, Wilkie currently works for Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) and previously served as the assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 17: Acting Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie delivers a brief statement during the daily news conference in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House May 17, 2018 in Washington, DC. Wilkie thanked President Donald Trump for the gift of his salary to 'caregiver support in the form of mental health and peer support programs.' (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 17: Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie speaks during a press briefing at the White House on Thursday, May 17, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 18: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Robert Wilkie after nominating him to be next Veterans Affairs Secretary, during an event in the East Room at the White House, on May 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. President Trump spoke briefly at the Prison Reform Summit. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 18: Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie (L) is seen as U.S. President Donald Trump (R) announces his intention to nominate Wilkie to be the next Veterans Affairs Secretary during a summit at the East Room of the White House May 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. The White House hosted a summit to discuss prison reform. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JUNE 26: Robert Wilkie, left, nominee to be secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, meets with Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., in the Russell Senate Office Building on Tuesday, June 26, 2018. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Robert Wilkie, nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, testifies on June 27, 2018, before the US Senate Veterans Affairs Committee in Washington, DC. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES June 27: Veterans Affairs secretary nominee Robert Wilkie prepares to testify in front of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee in the Dirksen Senate Office Building Wednesday June 27, 2018. (Photo By Sarah Silbiger/CQ Roll Call)
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