Veterans affairs probe: Records found in shredder bin

Veterans Affairs officials are investigating why 95 records were erroneously dumped in a shredder bin at the VA office in Columbia.

An unidentified employee at the Columbia office is under investigation for mishandling the documents, which include new benefits claims and other personal files, VA officials said.

“I can’t discuss in detail what action may be taken against an employee in this instance until the investigation is complete,” VA press secretary Alison Aikele said Wednesday.

In South Carolina, the possible destruction of benefit claims could affect some of the state’s 413,000 veterans. The shredding probe involves the VA’s benefits offices, not the hospitals.

So far, few veterans suspect they might have a problem resulting from their benefit claim being erroneously shredded.

“We don’t know how many, we don’t know why it happened,” said Rodney Burne, quartermaster of the Veterans of Foreign Wars S.C. department. “It will be interesting to find out.”

The documents slated for destruction were found in the shredder bin Oct. 3 as part of the agency’s inspector general’s review of how veterans records and claims are handled.

The probe discovered 41 of the VA’s 57 regional offices, including Columbia, had 500 records wrongly slated for shredding. The VA further determined that half of those records were found in shredder bins at the Columbia office and at two other offices, St. Louis and Cleveland.

Forty-six of the records — or about half — discovered in the shredder bin at the Columbia office were either new claims for benefits or supporting documents.

Other claims included burial and death benefits, notices of clients’ disagreements with VA rulings, and documents for education benefits.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee, whose membership includes U.S. Rep. Henry Brown, R-S.C., plans to look into the issue in mid-November, an aide said. “We’re going to have a roundtable discussion,” the aide said, explaining the session would not be as formal as a committee hearing.

Officials from the VA as well as representatives of veterans service organizations will be invited to the discussion, she added.

Brown called the reports “troubling,” and added “there is never any excuse for the shredding of documents especially when they jeopardize the benefits our veterans are entitled to.”

Brown said the incident “shows how important it is for the VA to focus on modernizing its information technology systems and establishing clear safeguards.”

The shredding issue was first reported by vawatchdog.org, a Web site run by Army veteran Larry Scott, of Vancouver, Wash.

Scott learned records were erroneously dumped in shredder bins at the VA’s Detroit office. VA investigators discovered Detroit was just part of the problem, so they ordered all 57 offices to check their shredder bins.

The fact that the Columbia office would have the most records in the shredder bin wasn’t a surprise, Scott said.

The Columbia office has a reputation as a “troubled office,” meaning it has a low clearance rate of veterans claims.

In 2005, the VA reported Columbia had the third-highest remand rate of the agency’s 57 regional offices. A remand is a benefit case that, once appealed, must be redone.

The VA said 50.1 percent of 3,095 cases filed with the Columbia office had to be remanded. The agencywide average was 44.3 percent.

Scott doubted Oct. 3 was the only time documents were erroneously headed for the shredder.

The mishandled documents add fuel to many veterans’ suspicions that the agency’s policy is to frustrate a vet’s effort to process a claim, Scott said.

“The expression is: ‘Delay, deny and hope that I die,’” Scott said.

Millions of documents are routinely shredded by VA offices without incident, Aikele said.

Shredding is done to protect the veterans’ privacy. It is supposed to be done after documents have been copied, she added.

“They’re just not tossed in the garbage,” Aikele said.

Reach Crumbo at (803) 771-8503.