Employees in the nation's busiest Department of Veterans Affairs benefits office, at Bay Pines in St. Petersburg, improperly placed eight documents into shredding bins, the VA said Wednesday.
The discovery during a random, one-time survey points to a disquieting possibility that the VA acknowledges it is now investigating:
Have workers for months or even years destroyed untold numbers of documents critical in deciding whether the VA owes a veteran a pension or a disability payment?
"That's the obvious question," said Mike Walcoff, the VA's deputy undersecretary for benefits in Washington. "We can't answer that at this point."
The VA's 56 regional offices began investigating allegations of improperly shredded documents last week after the agency's inspector general found problems in four cities - St. Louis, Detroit, St. Petersburg and Waco, Texas.
Of the eight documents in St. Petersburg, the VA said seven would have been critical in deciding a veteran's claim. The eighth document had already been processed but should have been returned to the veteran rather than marked for shredding.
"This is not something we're comfortable with," Walcoff said.
The St. Petersburg benefits office, covering the entire state and its 1.8-million veterans, processed 60,000 pension or disability claims last year.
As the VA and the inspector general continue their investigations, the VA is extending a national ban on shredding in its benefits offices until it works out a policy to safeguard documents.
The VA could not provide information on the findings in other benefits offices around the country. And the inspector general - the VA's independent watchdog - isn't finished with its separate inquiry.
The VA has scheduled a morning conference call today with the representatives of the six largest veterans service groups in the nation to provide an update on the VA's investigation.
William R. Levesque can be reached at (813) 269-5306 or at email@example.com.