Watchdog Groups Urge Investigation Of Bush Appointed Top VA Official For Ethics Violations
Bruce Wilson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Sep 04, 2007 at 05:50:36 PM EST
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation ( MRFF )  and Veterans For Common Sense ( VCS )  have issued a joint request, submitted to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, for an investigation into possible ethics violations by Bush Administration appointee Daniel Cooper, Under Secretary for Benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Cooper has stated that his religious belief is more important to him than his responsibilities as Under Secretary for Benefits at the VA, and the numbers of veterans awaiting case resolution, or waiting for disability compensation and pensions, have swollen dramatically under his management.  

Under Secretary Cooper was among Pentagon officials who appeared in the controversial "Christian Embassy" promotional video [ click here to watch video ], made for fund raising purposes by Christian Embassy, a Washington based ministry that is a subsidiary of Campus Crusade For Christ and which targets members of the Pentagon for evangelism. In the video, Cooper - talking about the regular Bible study sessions that Christian Embassy encourages in the Pentagon - stated a preference for his religious observance over his job responsibilities :

"It's not a matter of carving out time.  It really is a matter of saying what is important.  And since that's more important than doing the job.  The job's going to be there, whether I'm there or not.  "

Cooper was not investigated by the Pentagon's Inspector General, in a probe that produced a report concluding that several of the top Pentagon officials who appeared in the Christian Embassy video violated DoD rules. Instead, the VA's Inspector General looked into Cooper's role but the results have not yet been made public, and MRFF and VCS have filed a Freedom Of Information Act request concerning the VA IG's investigation.  

The two watchdog groups, in their letter to Attorney general Gonzales, state:

we believe Cooper violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution, as well as Clause 3, Article 6 of our U.S. Constitution, which, respectively, prohibit the government from preferring one religion over another, and prohibits the government from creating a `religion test' requirement.

VCS and MRFF believe Cooper may have violated ethics rules that prohibit government officials from using their name, picture, and/or title for proselytizing or fundraising, that prohibit the use of government facilities for certain purposes, that prohibit certain types of outside income, and that prohibit the appearance of a conflict of interest (Executive Order 12731, specifically the prohibition against using "public office for private gain," (§ 101(g)), and giving "preferential treatment to any private organization or individual," (§ 101(h)).

 

Under Cooper's management, since 2002 the number of veterans waiting for disability case resolution have almost doubled, to 600,000 while MRFF and VCS state, in their letter, that "the number of  of veterans between 400,000 and 600,000 veterans are being denied prompt access to disability compensation or pension as a result of significant mismanagement at under Cooper."

Below is the full text of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and Veterans For Common Sense Letter To The US Attorney General :


September 4, 2007

The Honorable Alberto Gonzales
Attorney General
U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20530

Dear Attorney General Gonzales:

Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF) request an immediate and full-scale investigation into alleged ethics violations by Daniel L. Cooper, the Under Secretary for Benefits at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).

Due to the high-profile nature of the allegations and the serious problems veterans face with obtaining prompt disability benefits and medical treatment, VCS and MRFF believe this matter should be promptly forwarded to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

According to a Department of Defense Inspector General's (DoD IG) investigation, several military officers violated DoD rules ("Alleged Misconduct by DoD Officials Concerning Christian Embassy," Report H06L102270308, July 20, 2007).  VCS and MRFF believe Cooper should be investigated for doing the same while at VA because he, too, used his name, picture, and government title to proselytize and to raise funds for a religious organization.

In the "Christian Embassy" film, Cooper is identified as an "Under Secretary," and is quoted as saying:

It's not a matter of carving out time.  It really is a matter of saying what is important.  And since that's more important than doing the job.  The job's going to be there, whether I'm there or not.

Cooper's comments make it clear to VCS and MRFF that he believes proselytizing and fundraising for his religion among government employees and on government time is more important than his job, where he is in charge of processing hundreds of thousands of disability claims each year for our wounded, injured, and ill veterans.

The DoD IG report found that "Christian Embassy," a subsidiary of Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical and proselytizing religious organization, improperly used the Pentagon as the site for a proselytizing and fundraising video by general officers while in uniform, on government time, inside a government building, with their subordinates.

Furthermore, as described on page 7 of the DoD IG report, Cooper was not investigated by the DoD IG, even though Cooper is a retired U.S. Navy Vice Admiral.  Cooper may have been investigated by VA's Inspector General because Cooper was clearly identified as the "Under Secretary" when he appeared in the "Christian Embassy" proselytizing and fundraising video.

VCS and MRFF believe that VA's IG was not the proper organization to investigate Cooper because of a clear conflict of interest, as he is the top official of the Veterans Benefits Administration (VBA).  VA has not released their report on Cooper.  Therefore, VCS filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain VA's investigative report, if, in fact, there is one.

VCS and MRFF believe that Cooper's actions clearly violate our U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state because he is abusing his government employment, a position of public trust, to promote and to raise money for his religion.

Specifically, we believe Cooper violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to our U.S. Constitution, as well as Clause 3, Article 6 of our U.S. Constitution, which, respectively, prohibit the government from preferring one religion over another, and prohibits the government from creating a `religion test' requirement.

VCS and MRFF believe Cooper may have violated ethics rules that prohibit government officials from using their name, picture, and/or title for proselytizing or fundraising, that prohibit the use of government facilities for certain purposes, that prohibit certain types of outside income, and that prohibit the appearance of a conflict of interest (Executive Order 12731, specifically the prohibition against using "public office for private gain," (§ 101(g)), and giving "preferential treatment to any private organization or individual," (§ 101(h)).

Cooper's involvement with "Christian Embassy" may have impacted his work performance at VA.  As of today, between 400,000 and 600,000 veterans are being denied prompt access to disability compensation or pension as a result of significant mismanagement at under Cooper.  Delays in compensation or pension benefit decisions also delay veterans' access to veterans' healthcare.

VCS and MRFF believe that time is of the essence in protecting the interests of our Nation's wounded, injured, and ill veterans seeking disability benefits from VA.

Under Cooper's leadership, the delivery of disability benefits to our Nation's veterans has deteriorated substantially:

·        The number of unfinished veterans' disability claims increased, from 325,000 in 2002, shortly after Cooper was confirmed by the Senate, to 600,000 in 2007, according to VA reports.

·        The length of time it takes VA to process a veteran's disability claim was seven months in 2002.  At the end of Fiscal Year 2006, veterans wait six and a half months.  In 2002, then-Secretary of Veterans Affairs Anthony Principi's charge to Cooper was to reduce the time to process a claim to three months.

·        More than 202,000 recent war veterans filed disability compensation claims against VA, yet 40,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans are still waiting for a decision from VA.

·        VA hospitals, clinics and counseling centers report that more than 52,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  However, the Veterans Benefits Administration, under Cooper's command, reports only 19,000 of those veterans were approved for service-connected disability compensation for PTSD, a significant discrepancy.

·        National Guard and Reserve veterans sent to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are half as likely to file a disability claim against VA.  However, National Guard and Reserve veterans are twice as likely to have their VA claim rejected, two very serious problems showing wide differences in outcomes among soldiers who served side-by-side in combat.

·        VA Secretary Jim Nicholson has publicly stated that the enormous and growing backlog of unfinished veterans disability claims at VBA is "unacceptable" (Hope Yen, Associated Press, "VA Bonus Winners Sat on Review Boards," May 15, 2007).

·        Cooper's top aide at VBA, Ronald Aument, the Deputy Secretary for Benefits, reportedly received a $33,000 cash bonus while the claims backlog grew larger and the Secretary rated VBA's performance as "unacceptable."

The continued lack of improvement and needless delays cause many more veterans to fall through the cracks - broken families, eviction or foreclosure, an inability to feed their families, and a lack of access to free VA medical care.

VCS and MRFF believe an immediate investigation into Cooper's alleged misconduct is justified as in the public interest because the DoD IG has already documented strong and convincing evidence of substantial wrongdoing by top Pentagon officials and because of Cooper's well-documented poor performance and other questionable activities at VBA.

VCS and MRFF believe the FBI should investigate whether Cooper used his public office for private gain, or if he gave preferential treatment to any private organization or individual.  Specifically, at any time on or after March 22, 2002, did Cooper:

·        Receive any income from "Christian Embassy" or "Campus Crusade for Christ" for his promotional work on their behalf.  At least one officer at DoD received similar outside income.

·        Hold any prayer meetings, proselytize, raise funds, or film a promotional video on VA property, during work hours, or with any VA employee or contractor. Several DoD employees engaged in similar activity.

·        Promote, provide a bonus, or grant any preferential treatment to any person, including any VA employee or contractor.  In light of the unusually high bonuses approved for Cooper's subordinates, this is a critical new area of investigation.

This issue of our veterans' access to prompt disability benefits and medical care was a highlight of President George W. Bush's speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars on August 21, 2007.  Therefore, we strongly urge the Administration to honor our Nation's commitment to our veterans.

VCS and MRFF would appreciate a written response to our request for an investigation of alleged ethics violations committed by VA's Under Secretary for Benefits Daniel Cooper within thirty (30) days.

Sincerely,

Paul Sullivan                                                        
Mikey Weinstein




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