Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Hundreds of VA documents improperly shredded, review finds

A review of shredding bins at Department of Veterans Affairs benefits offices around the nation uncovered 489 documents improperly set aside for destruction, the VA confirmed on Thursday.

This includes documents in about two-thirds of the VA's 57 regional benefits offices, including eight at the busiest, Bay Pines in St. Petersburg, the closest office for Tampa Bay's 330,000 veterans.

These new numbers significantly expand the scope of what is turning into a major and embarrassing challenge for the VA.

And now VA investigators are trying to figure out if this one-time survey points to the likelihood that documents have been improperly destroyed for months or even years.

"Whatever this problem is, it didn't just start in the last two weeks," said Dave Autry, a spokesman for Disabled American Veterans. "It'd be unreasonable to assume that. Who knows what's been destroyed."

The documents, which didn't have duplicates at the VA, would have been critical in deciding veteran pension and disability claims. As a result, many veterans are asking whether their delayed or denied claims were affected by lost paperwork.

"Now that the VA's been caught with their pants down, everybody's got to wonder if they're affected," said Paul Freeland, 72, a Marine veteran from Pinellas Park who accuses the VA of losing his paperwork on a denied disability claim.

With two VA attorneys convicted in the mid 1990s of purposefully destroying paperwork to ease their workload, one question the VA hopes to answer:

Is any of this deliberate?

The VA says it doesn't know.

"This is disturbing and very concerning," said Mike Walcoff, the VA's deputy undersecretary for benefits in Washington, D.C. "We're doing our best to get the number to zero."

The VA is continuing its unprecedented national ban of all shredding at its benefits offices until it finds a way to guarantee documents aren't being improperly destroyed.

At benefits offices in Cleveland and Columbia, S.C., two employees have been placed on administrative leave after the VA found evidence they may have deliberately placed documents in a shredding bin.

About 259 of the misplaced documents found nationally are tied to these two cities and St. Louis, the VA said.

Walcoff said the VA is reviewing how it safeguards all documents and noted that the VA review isn't necessarily confined to shredding operations.

Asked if the VA is investigating whether unprocessed documents may be languishing in desks, briefcases or at the homes of VA employees, Walcoff said, "We're looking at all possibilities."

The VA began its internal inquiry after its Inspector General — the agency's independent watchdog — found problems this month in four cities during a routine audit. The IG has not finished its report.

Those cities were St. Louis, Detroit, St. Petersburg and Waco, Texas.

Walcoff noted it is possible that some regional offices reported no problem documents because the paperwork was routinely destroyed before the VA's review.

It also is possible, he said, that a small portion of the 489 may ultimately prove to have been adequately processed.

Walcoff declined to say if the VA is considering reopening any denied claims in cases in which a veteran alleged that the agency had lost paperwork.

"I can't speculate," he said. "There are legal issues involved."

The benefits offices are among the most paper-intensive in the federal bureaucracy, processing 162-million pages a year. The VA said the current situation points to the need for a faster transition to computer records.

One of the most common complaints by veterans seeking benefits is that the VA loses documents.

That can delay by months or even years a decision on a claim and can lead to a denial.

Gordon Erspamer, a California claims attorney who has worked on litigation against the VA, said the agency has long known it had a problem with improperly destroyed paperwork.

"This has been going on for many, many years," he said. VA claims workers "are under such intense pressure to process claims quickly that they look for the easiest way to deny a claim. Instead of making a decision, it's often better to just lose a medical report."

Erspamer said VA workers have a financial incentive to process claims quickly because they essentially work on a quota system. That, he said, encourages some to "lose" paperwork.

"Tens of thousands of veterans simply die with their claims pending," he said.

William R. Levesque can be reached at or (813) 269-5306.

Hundreds of VA documents improperly shredded, review finds 10/23/08 [Last modified: Monday, October 27, 2008 4:23pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. DOT shows alternatives to former Tampa Bay Express toll lanes


    TAMPA — State transportation officials are evaluating at least a half-dozen alternatives to the controversial Tampa Bay interstate plan that they will workshop with the community for the next 18 months.

    Florida Department of Transportation consultant Brad Flom explains potential alternatives to adding toll lanes to Interstate 275 during a meeting Wednesday at DOT's Tampa office. Flom presented seven diagrams, all of which swapped toll lanes for transit, such as light rail or express bus, in the I-275 corridor from downtown Tampa to Bearss Ave. [CAITLIN JOHNSTON | Times]
  2. Florida Orchestra and Tampa Bay Master Chorale scrap search for a joint conductor


    TAMPA — After a yearlong effort, the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay and the Florida Orchestra have abandoned their search for a conductor capable of leading both groups.

    Doreen Rao conducts a concert with the Buffalo Philharmonic Chorus and Orchestra in December 2010. Photo by Enid Bloch.
  3. New in theaters July 4 weekend: 'Despicable Me 3,' 'Baby Driver,' 'The House,' 'The Beguiled'


    OPENING Thursday:


    One of Hollywood's most successful animation franchises isn't about "me" anymore; it's about them.

    Gru (Steve Carell) squares off against Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker) in Despicable Me 3.
  4. Uhurus cancel Baker protest


    Jesse Nevel's campaign had planned to stage an anti-Rick Baker protest outside the St. Petersburg Yacht Club this evening while Baker held a fundraiser inside.

    Now, that's not happening.

    Jesse Nevel's Uhuru-affiliated campaign postpones protest
  5. Claim: State pressured CFO, used secret recordings to shut down Universal Health Care


    ST. PETERSBURG — The founder of St. Petersburg's Universal Health Care alleges that Florida regulators conspired with the company's chief financial officer to drive the once high-flying Medicare insurer out of business.

    Federal agents raided the headquarters of Universal Health Care in 2013, ordering employees to leave the building. The insolvent St. Petersburg Medicare insurer was then in the process of being liquidated by state regulators.
[DIRK SHADD   |   Times file photo]