A House committee overseeing the Department of Veterans Affairs will hold hearings next month to question VA leaders about documents improperly marked for shredding at agency offices around the nation.
Rep. Bob Filner, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, said Friday that he was outraged by revelations that papers crucial to deciding veteran disability and pension claims were being destroyed by VA workers.
"These guys remind me of the Keystone Kops," Filner said. "This completely shatters confidence in the whole VA system. These documents are matters of life and death for some of these veterans."
Rep. C.W. Bill Young, R-Indian Shores, is not on the committee but supports having hearings and suggested the problem might be widespread. Some VA employees could face legal problems, he said.
Filner said he will hold the hearings the week of Nov. 17, when a lame-duck session of Congress is expected to convene to consider an economic stimulus package.
Filner said among those he will call to testify are VA Secretary James Peake and investigators for the agency's independent watchdog, the inspector general.
A VA spokeswoman declined to comment on the hearings or Filner's statements. But the VA said it expects to cooperate with any House investigation.
Filner, a frequent critic of the VA, said he wanted to know how far back this problem went and said he thought the agency needed new leadership.
"I think there are some employees at the VA who don't want to do the work," Filner said. "And management allows this to happen."
The VA inspector general earlier this month found problems with documents improperly marked for disposal at benefits offices in four cities: St. Petersburg, Detroit, St. Louis and Waco, Texas.
While the inspector general investigation continued, the VA began a separate inquiry that found nearly 500 documents improperly placed in shredder bins in about two-thirds of the agency's 57 benefits offices.
At Bay Pines in St. Petersburg, the busiest benefits office in the nation, investigators found eight misplaced documents.
Young said he spoke with investigators for the inspector general in St. Petersburg this week. "What they tell me convinces me that it's bad," Young said. "And I think some people are probably in legal trouble."
But Young declined to release details or say if any employee of the St. Petersburg office deliberately threw away veterans' paperwork. Young said investigators asked him not to release information until their work is finished.
"I don't think they know the full scale of the problem yet," Young said. "I'm afraid this might be a widespread and long-term situation."
Alison Aikele, a VA spokeswoman in Washington, said a national ban on all shredding in benefits offices remains in effect. That ban will continue until the agency settles on a policy to guarantee key documents are not improperly destroyed.
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5306.