WASHINGTON - The Knight Ridder investigation into the performance of the Department of Veterans Affairs is based in part on documents and databases that the agency released only after Knight Ridder sued the VA in federal court.
The lawsuit, filed in early November in the U.S. District Court here, said the VA "has gone to extraordinary lengths to frustrate public access" to agency information. The suit demanded the release of documents and that the VA pay Knight Ridder's legal expenses.
Once the suit was filed, the VA began to release information. Included are documents that reveal the agency's limited efforts to oversee nonprofit veterans service organizations, as well as databases that show how VA regional offices award disability checks at different rates.
The lawsuit was filed after the VA repeatedly refused to answer basic questions, declined to make officials available for interviews and denied access to information that would document how well the VA serves America's veterans.
During one October interview, VA General Counsel Tim S. McClain conceded that "we have not provided you with everything to which you are entitled."
Knight Ridder reporters filed 30 requests and appeals under the federal Freedom of Information Act, the law which mandates that certain government records be made available to the public.
The agency denied some of the requests and never responded to others. At one point, after Knight Ridder had requested a small number of documents, the VA said it would make the information available only if Knight Ridder paid $41,250 to have photocopies made of an estimated 275,000 pages that might contain the requested information.
To prepare this report, Knight Ridder also interviewed veterans, their families and their representatives from around the country; surveyed all 50 of the state agencies that also assist veterans; surveyed all the major nonprofit veterans organizations; and reviewed records from the courts that handle veterans' appeals.
Among a half-dozen computer databases reviewed were the annual survey the VA conducts to assess veterans' satisfaction; the file of 3.4 million veterans claims currently being paid; and 900,000 veterans appeals records from the past decade.