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 firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 269-5306.