A former Department of Veterans Affairs employee accused the agency today of "cover-up after cover-up" and a "callous indifference" to the plight of veterans it is supposed to serve.
Jamie Fox, who lost her job at the VA's Oakland office after arguing that a veteran's benefits were being erroneously denied, appeared in federal court in San Francisco as part of a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against the agency.
She was joined in court by Hosea Roundtree, the Navy veteran whose application for benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder was denied on the grounds that he had never seen combat even though he had witnessed the 1983 shelling of Beirut.
"We are being cheated out of our benefits," Roundtree said after the hearing. "I want to stand with someone who was standing up for us vets."
In the courtroom, Elizabeth Laporte, the federal magistrate hearing the case, ruled that Roundtree's disability claim file should be entered as evidence in Fox's wrongful termination suit. "The denial of benefits are at issue," Laporte said.
In a deposition in 2010, the then-head of the VA's Oakland office, Lynn Flint, argued that Fox exceeded her authority by advocating for additional review of Roundtree's disability claim, slowing down her productivity. Fox, Flint said in the deposition, should have sent Roundtree a letter denying his benefits whether the decision was "right or wrong."
In legal pleadings filed in federal court earlier this month, the agency took a different tact.
In court papers filed earlier this month, the VA's attorney, Victoria Carradero, cited a story on Fox's case produced by the Center for Investigative Reporting, parent organization of California Watch, and said the VA "is entitled the opportunity to investigate" allegations that benefits were wrongfully denied and "demonstrate their lack of merit."
Fox's case comes amid increased scrutiny of the way the VA handles disability claims. Nationwide, the number of veterans waiting for benefits has grown to about 900,000, and the average wait time zoomed to 262 days this fall.
Veterans awaiting a decision from the VA's Oakland office, which serves veterans who live between Bakersfield and the Oregon border, wait more than a year on average.
Mistakes also have been an issue. A CIR review of a year's worth of audits by the agency's inspector general revealed a problem of chronic errors - committed in up to 1 in 3 cases - and an emphasis on speed over accuracy that clogs the VA system with appeals, increasing delays for all veterans.
VA officials have argued that the inspector general's reports "do not present a true picture of the overall quality of the work performed" by VA employees because they focused on a subset of high-profile claims. Agency representatives could not be reached for further comment.
For her part, Fox characterizes the Roundtree case as a smokescreen designed to detract from allegations of employment discrimination brought by another former employee of the VA's Oakland office. That employee, Ann Williams, alleges she was taunted regularly for being a lesbian.
At the time she lost her job, Fox said she had just come forward to corroborate William's story. "If we had not complained to Oakland VA management about the discrimination and prejudice in our workplace, we would still be there, doing the job we loved, helping other veterans like Hosea Roundtree," Fox said outside the courtroom.
The VA has denied that any harassment took place in filings in the Fox case.
View this story on California Watch