Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Documents: Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs Staff Failed to Reveal More Than $9M during Legislative Hearings

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

Documents: Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs Staff Failed to Reveal More Than $9M during Legislative Hearings

Article excerpt

Staff members of the Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs hid more than $9 million in federal funds from members of the Oklahoma Legislature during the 2009 budget crisis, documents obtained by The Journal Record show.

Buried deep in budget documents and ODVA financial data, records indicate that the ODVA had $9.197 million in federal reimbursement funds on hand when its staff members testified at legislative hearings in December 2009.

During the hearings, neither Martha Spear, the agency's executive director, nor Acting Deputy Director Roy Griffith said anything about more than $9 million in federal funds, but instead told lawmakers the agency could not afford a budget cut.

Records show that the funds were hidden in other portions of the agency's budget.

The money was part of an initiative from the federal VA to retroactively refund the cost of caring for veterans who were listed as 100-percent disabled. Previously, the VA only covered about 70 percent of the cost.

Passed by Congress in 2008, the program refunded millions of dollars back to veterans' families and state veterans departments to repay the costs of caring for veterans who were 100-percent disabled.

In Oklahoma, more than $9.6 million was paid back to veterans and their family members, while another $9.197 million was paid back to the state's veterans system.

Under state law, the Office of State Finance and state lawmakers should have been notified about the funds.

However, documents show that the ODVA received a standstill budget that year due in part to statements made by Spear and Griffith. Spear announced her retirement in August. She is on family medical leave until her Nov. 1 retirement. Griffith is also the administrator of the Talihina Veterans Center.

During the legislative hearing, Spear, Griffith and other ODVA staff members said any funding cuts would send the agency into a death spiral and prevent it from capturing federal money needed to pay for the care of veterans living at state centers. An ODVA financial officer told lawmakers that additional cuts to the agency would also cause major problems for the centers and could force agency staff members to turn away veterans needing help.

Yet even while the ODVA leadership testified and painted a dark, foreboding image of the agency's budget situation, documents show that the millions in federal money had been placed in various departments within the agency just prior to the legislative hearings.

Moving the funds prevented legislative staff and analysts with the Office of State Finance from discovering the federal windfall.

Records show that the funds were placed in departments that included personnel, construction and other agency programs. Once the agency's appropriation was approved and had passed the Legislature, those funds were moved back into the ODVA general revenue fund. …

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