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500 Files Pulled From Shredder

Published: October 25, 2008

TAMPA - A review this week of 57 regional offices of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has turned up nearly 500 benefit claim records that were set to be destroyed, agency officials said Friday.

The VA is now recommending that veterans - those who have not been contacted for six months or more about their claims for benefits - call their regional benefits office "to make sure the claim has been received, and everything is there," said Alison Aikele, the VA's press secretary in Washington, D.C.

The documents that were found in bins of paper waiting to be put through a paper shredder included veteran applications and change requests for benefits, which are needed to properly process an individual's claim.

The department is keeping in place an agency-wide ban on shredding while investigators from the VA's Office of Inspector General complete an audit of the St. Petersburg regional office. Staff there found eight documents in a shred bin last week that should not have been put there.

Investigators also have been asked to review allegations at two other regional offices that staff intentionally tried to destroy documents.

More than half of the 498 veterans' documents found in shred bins came from regional offices in St. Louis, Cleveland and Columbia, S.C. Both Columbia and St. Louis have placed one employee each on administrative leave pending the probe.

"There is a suspicion ... that those documents may have been mishandled intentionally," Aikele said.

As of Wednesday, only 18 benefits records had been found misplaced in shred bins at four offices. That number ballooned as each regional office stopped shredding and employees began going piece-by-piece through paper bins.

"We didn't really know what to expect," Aikele said.

The St. Petersburg regional office is the hub for all benefits claims for Florida's 1.8 million veterans. It had already been originally scheduled for a routine audit of mail room operations prior to the Inspector General's discovery last week of misplaced documents in Detroit, St. Louis and Waco, Texas.

The question now facing the VA is how to determine how long such documents may have been placed in shred bins and how many documents might have been destroyed.

"We just don't know," Aikele said. "We don't have an idea how far back it could go."

Veterans can check the status of their benefit claims by contacting a VA call center at 1-800-827-1000.

Reporter John W. Allman can be reached at (813) 259-7915.

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