ST. PETERSBURG — Investigators are sorting through bins of documents at the Department of Veterans Affairs regional office in St. Petersburg to see whether workers have improperly shredded sensitive veteran documents.
The search is part of a national probe to determine whether VA employees are destroying unprocessed documents crucial in deciding if individual veterans are owed financial benefits.
In an unprecedented decision, VA leaders are ordering that the agency's 56 regional benefits offices cease all shredding until a review of the issue is finished.
The VA says its inspector general — the VA's independent watchdog arm — has found documents improperly marked for destruction in VA offices in St. Louis, Detroit and Waco, Texas.
Mike Walcoff, the VA's deputy undersecretary for benefits in Washington, confirmed that investigators are also at work at the VA's Bay Pines office in St. Petersburg.
Walcoff said auditors have not yet said if they have discovered any problems there. A report is expected next week.
"But frankly, given problems we've seen elsewhere, we're waiting anxiously to see what is found in St. Petersburg," Walcoff said.
The VA briefed representatives of major veterans service groups on Thursday, said Joe Davis, a spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington.
Davis said he and others were told by the VA that investigators found several documents improperly marked for destruction in St. Petersburg, home to the VA's largest regional office. No details were available.
"It's like a minefield," Davis said on Friday. "Is it one document or a thousand? Nobody knows. How big is this? How many papers have been improperly shredded in the past?
"It's an absolute failure in management."
The shredding controversy, first reported by the Web site VAwatchdog.org, came to light in a regular audit of VA mail rooms, which handle shredding, in St. Petersburg and the three other cities.
Auditors quickly found problems with documents awaiting destruction.
"The documents, which were not duplicated in government files, could have affected veterans' eligibility for benefits," the VA said in a statement.
Regional offices handle a range of documents, from marriage licenses to birth and death certificates, in addition to financial records.
The directors of every VA regional office are being told to certify in writing that no original copies of key documents from pending veterans' cases are being destroyed.
The VA has promised swift disciplinary action against any employees who are found to have improperly destroyed documents.
"It is unacceptable that documents important to a veterans' claim for benefits should be misplaced or destroyed," VA Secretary James Peake said in a statement.
Larry Scott, the Army veteran and former NBC-TV reporter who founded VAwatchdog.org, reported that inspector general auditors found wide problems in Detroit.
Those included "hundreds of claims, documents critical to claims and other valuable information" in shredder bins, Scott reported. Auditors, the Web site reported, also found thousands of pieces of undelivered mail.
Rick Weidman, executive director of policy and governmental affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America, said the controversy points to a systemic failure inside the VA to hold employees accountable.
"They need to inject honesty and accountability at every level of the VA," he said. "People are not held accountable and even if they get caught, nothing happens to them."
William R. Levesque can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 269-5306.