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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The FBI has opened a criminal investigation into the Department of Veterans Affairs after a scathing watchdog report that found sweeping problems in the medical system for military veterans, FBI Director James Comey said Wednesday.

In response to questioning at a House Judiciary Committee hearing, Comey said the investigation was being led by the FBI's office in Phoenix. The VA hospital there has been at the center of allegations of excessive wait times for medical care and inappropriate scheduling practices. Troubles at the department forced the resignation last month of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

Comey did not elaborate on the investigation, though a Justice Department official said Wednesday that the department had asked the FBI to review materials provided by the VA inspector general. The official was not authorized to discuss an ongoing criminal investigation on the record and thus spoke only on the condition of anonymity.

The Justice Department earlier has said federal prosecutors were reviewing documents related to the VA, but the involvement of the FBI represents an escalation into concerns of possible criminal conduct by VA employees. Still, it remains unclear whether investigators will find any basis for prosecution.

The inspector general said in a report last month that 1,700 veterans seeking treatment at the Phoenix VA hospital were "at risk of being lost or forgotten." The VA has confirmed that at least 35 veterans died while awaiting treatment in Phoenix, although officials say they do not know whether the deaths were related to long waiting times for appointments.

Richard Griffin, the VA's acting inspector general, recently told lawmakers that his investigators were probing for wrongdoing at 69 agency medical facilities, up from 42 two weeks ago.

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