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Probe of veterans' charity official ends after he's allowed to resign

WASHINGTON—The Department of Veterans Affairs has allowed a top official at Vietnam Veterans of America to resign as a claims handler as a way to halt a federal investigation of his past conduct.

The VA was investigating whether the charity's national secretary, Jim Grissom of Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, submitted fraudulent documents to help clients obtain federal disability and health benefits.

An internal probe by Vietnam Veterans of America determined in October 2001 that Grissom had misrepresented himself as a practicing medical professional and had "repeatedly and routinely submitted misleading and fraudulent paperwork" to the VA, the charity's records show.

But those findings were kept secret until documents were leaked to Knight Ridder newspapers and the VA last spring. Grissom ended his bid to become president of the organization—the largest advocacy group for Vietnam-era veterans, with 50,000 members—when the controversy became public.

Recently, the VA's regional office in Idaho launched an investigation. After learning of the inquiry, Grissom called the VA to ask how he could "put the situation behind him."

The VA's regional counsel in Idaho suggested that if Grissom resigned his accreditation to handle veterans' claims, the agency would halt its inquiry, the VA said in a statement.

From the beginning, Grissom has said he did nothing wrong when he filled out and signed psychiatric referral forms to a VA clinic in Seattle to help veterans get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. He said he thought he was authorized to fill out the forms.

"Everything's just been an allegation," Grissom said Friday. "Since it was just an allegation that's where it should have ended."

The VA spends more than $20 billion on disability claims every year, many of them based on the work of claims handlers such as Grissom. A Knight Ridder investigation found that these individuals often aren't adequately trained or screened for integrity or ability.

While the VA's investigation of Grissom is over, the whistleblower who reported Grissom's conduct to the VA faces a disciplinary hearing Tuesday before the Vietnam Veterans of America's board of directors.

The board and hundreds of other members will be in Reno, Nev., this week for the group's national convention and election of officers. Ed Chow, the group's current vice president and a former top VA official, is the only declared candidate for president, but group officials expect others to run from the floor.

An internal task force the charity established to determine the source of leaks to Knight Ridder and the VA has recommended disciplinary action against Jerry Kyser, the president of the group's Minnesota State Counsel. The report concluded that Kyser distributed key documents about the 2001 Grissom investigation to regulators at the VA and other state chapter presidents. The task force said it didn't know who released similar information to Knight Ridder, but it identified a number of people who could have disclosed the organization's confidential information.

The task force's report, which Knight Ridder obtained, says the discipline would be only for sharing the documents with other state presidents. Punishing Kyser for alerting the VA would be bad public relations, the report concluded, because it would "play right into Mr. Kyser portraying himself as a whistleblower who reported alleged wrongdoing to a federal agency and is now being persecuted by the organization whose alleged wrongdoing he sought to expose and correct."

The report, which chides those who leaked information as lacking a sense of duty to the veterans' charity, recommends new secrecy rules and says Grissom is a victim of "dirty politics."

"No one can deny his commitment to veterans," the task force wrote. "Unfortunately, in the course of serving veterans in need, he engaged in some practices that came under scrutiny."

The report doesn't delve into the substance of the charity's findings of misconduct by Grissom or whether the group was right to let him resign as a claims handler to avoid further investigation or action. Nor does it examine whether the charity has an adequate system for overseeing the conduct of its 550 VA-accredited volunteers and employees who assist veterans in pursuing claims for medical, disability and other VA benefits.

Kyser, who lives in the St. Paul suburb of Roseville, said in an interview that he did the right thing by alerting the VA and fellow state presidents. "It's an absolute abomination that they would come after me," he said. "I had a perfect right to bring things to their attention that I felt affected the character and integrity of our organization."

Kyser said he was disappointed that the VA had dropped its probe. "That seems just a convenient way to sweep it away," he said.

Grissom resigned his VA accreditation as a claims helper through Vietnam Veterans of America in 2001. But he remained accredited by the VA through a second group, the National Veterans Organization of America, until last week.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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