By ERIC NALDER AND LISE OLSEN Houston Chronicle Published: June 18, 2012
Across the country, disabled veterans’ families are in bitter battles with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, trying to oust VA-appointed fiduciaries from their lives.
Two attorneys, Doug Rosinski of Columbia, S.C., and Katrina Eagle of San Diego, have taken on VA in cases involving allegations of bureaucratic mistreatment. Both said regional program managers sometimes overlook the misdeeds of paid fiduciaries while coming down hard on veterans’ relatives who do the work for nothing.
The agency’s policy is that family members get priority in fiduciary appointments, but it does not always work that way. And while many family members serve successfully as fiduciaries for disabled veterans, some get into trouble, often because of a lack of training or knowledge of the rules
R. Dean Slicer, a top regional program manager in Indiana, boasted in a November 2010 email to an Indianapolis bank official that they would have “fun” battling with a war veteran’s daughter. Carolyn Stump, a registered nurse, was trying to free her seriously ailing 81-year-old dad, William Evans, from a fiduciary at the bank who had tangled with the family and had recently been slow paying some bills, according to court records.
Slicer, who last year was promoted to oversee the fiduciary program in 13 states, declined to comment.
“It is very unfortunate that the VA gives any one person that much power,” said Stump, who is also her father’s medical caretaker and state court-appointed guardian.
“Obviously there are stories that we are going to look into,” said VA spokesman Joshua Taylor when asked about that case and others.
Veterans are rarely successful in winning control of their finances back from the fiduciary program.
The VA had long held that beneficiaries had no right of appeal. But in April 2011, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veterans Claims agreed with Rosinski’s argument that there is an appeal right. Armed with that ruling, he is trying to win release for his client, disabled Dallas veteran William Freeman, from a “complete stranger” appointed as his fiduciary.
The judges chided Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki for his department’s failure to explain its handling of Freeman.
Joe Boatman, of Round Rock, Texas, also never got an explanation why James Andrews, a fiduciary program official based in Waco, showed up at his house last July to berate his wife for the way she had handled their finances as her husband’s appointed fiduciary for ten years, bringing her to tears.
Andrews’ follow-up report cited overdraft charges and questioned Boatman’s access to the bank accounts. He also said “no questionable expenditures or misuse of funds were identified,” though he added there was no way to tell because his funds were commingled with his wife’s. His report described Boatman as an “alert” and cogent man.
Eagle said the VA had previously allowed Boatman’s wife, a retired social worker, to commingle their monies. In previous reports she was praised for her handling of their finances.
Andrews, who did not respond to messages, had already appointed a new fiduciary to take over Boatman’s financial affairs. Eagle said his criticisms seemed “pre-ordained” to justify his actions.
After Eagle got involved, the VA backed away, taking the unusual step of releasing Boatman from the program. Eagle said it helped that his case was mentioned at a February congressional hearing. The VA also ordered an investigation of the case. It has not responded to a Hearst request for the report.
Boatman, who was a Navy combat medic in Vietnam, chaired a committee of Vietnam Veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. He challenged local Veterans Affairs officials over PTSD policies and at one point had a role in exposing an embarrassing department email.
“I was blindsided out of nowhere,” Boatman says of the fiduciary flap, but adds he does not think he was retaliated against.
In the Indiana case of William Evans, Eagle said, she’s sure retaliation did occur.
Slicer — the recently promoted regional manager — and others in his office have for more than two years been waging a nasty and unresolved battle, which has gone repeatedly to a special veterans appeals court, to prevent Evans and his family from wriggling free of the fiduciary program.
Stump, the veteran’s daughter, had nursed Evans for more than a decade when in July 2009 she inquired about a medical guardianship. She was persuaded by federal bureaucrats to apply for a financial one, records show. She had power of attorney for her father already, and didn’t think the fiduciary program was necessary, but she accepted the role, according to documents. Upset from the beginning, she wrote to her congressman about it. Her relationship with Veterans Affairs deteriorated.
Still, an agency field examination in July 2010 found “no questionable expenditures,” a tidy home and a well-cared-for father. Behind the scenes, a wounded bureaucracy was preparing to come down on her, court records show.
In October 2010, Stump was removed as fiduciary and an official at Greenfield Banking Company, Joana Springmier, was appointed.
VA officials questioned Stump’s failure to get prior permission to buy appliances and new flooring for her father’s home, and her decision to take Evans on trips to get special medical treatment and to visit Army buddies before he slipped into the darkness of Alzheimer’s. She was told the trips were “emotional spending” — not allowed — and the bank was instructed to save more money for emergencies. Stump said she saw no reason to hoard her ailing father’s money with him so close to death.
In a Nov. 22, 2010 email to Springmier, Slicer mentioned the “many congressional and other complaints filed by Mrs. Stump.” He told Springmier to “document any conversations you have.” He cited a technical misstep: Stump’s mother had refused to disclose her small Social Security allotment.
“So this will be a fun one,” wrote Slicer.
Stump said her mother was afraid that Slicer would seize her income, too.
Two other Indiana families fought with Slicer’s office and the bank, including Vicki Olson of Fort Wayne, who won freedom from the program for her husband in a protracted battle that caused her to become a volunteer advocate for other veterans.