April 23 VCS Lawsuit Fallout: VA Official Grilled About E-Mails

CBS News

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) deputy chief, Gordon Mansfield, was questioned Wednesday by members of congress in Washington about allegations that the VA tried to cover up the true risk of suicide among veterans.

“I am very angry and upset,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., during a Senate hearing on veterans issues. Murray asked Mansfield how the public should trust the VA when “every time we turn around we find out that what you’re saying publicly is different from what you’re saying privately?”

Internal e-mails made public this week as part of a lawsuit in San Francisco federal court show what appears to be the deliberate attempt by top VA officials to conceal the number of suicides and attempted suicides by veterans.

In one email message titled “Not for the CBS News…,” the VA’s head of mental health Dr. Ira Katz wrote “Shh!” and then claimed there were 1,000 suicide attempts per month by veterans under the care of the agency. The e-mail was written last February when CBS News was questioning the VA about the number of veterans who have tried to kill themselves.

After a public records request, the VA provided CBS News with data that showed there were a total of 790 attempted suicides by VA patients in the entire year of 2007. This number was nowhere near what Katz was saying privately in his email.

In response to Murray, Mansfield said “I share your concern and I apologize for the fact that I have to apologize again.” He then said he would not characterize the e-mail as “keeping information from this Congress.” After listening to Murray, Mansfield called it “unfortunate” and said the e-mail “does not bode well” or “send the right message.”

Outside the hearing room, Murray said it was time for Katz “to go.” When asked about Katz’s future by CBS News Chief Investigative Correspondent Armen Keteyian, Mansfield would not respond. He said, “I am not prepared to discuss the issue. I don’t have all the facts.”

Meanwhile another senator, Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced a bill Tuesday mandating the VA to provide Congress with an annual accounting of suicide both in and out of the VA system. Harkin told CBS News “whoever is involved in covering up and not giving [Congress] a clear picture of how many veterans are out there attempted and committing suicide… [should] lose their job.”

Katz was not at the Senate hearing Wednesday and the VA has not commented on his future at the agency.

But a source tells CBS News Katz’s days as the head of mental health at the VA may well be numbered.

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