Scandal and ineptitude at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs are nothing new. In fact, the federal bureaucracy of the VA was birthed amid a massive backlog of claims from post-WWI veterans and corruption on an enormous scale during the scandal-plagued administration of President Warren G. Harding. Unfortunately, our national leaders failed to learn from the failures that were evident at the genesis of the behemoth government program that portends to care for the needs of our nation’s veterans. Instead, it has grown and become even more unwieldy over the last hundred years.
In 1921 Congress passed the Sweet Act, creating the Veterans’ Bureau, which consolidated several veterans programs into one federal agency. The number of backlogged claims from WWI veterans at the time was massive. An editorial in the American Legion Weekly presciently warned at the time that “The difficulty of inducing Congress to enact the Sweet Bill should clear any illusions from the minds of ex-servicemen. Congress is going to give veterans of the World War only such considerations as it finds inescapable.”
The American Legion Weekly reported that when the Sweet Act passed,
There were 248,411 veterans alleging disability with claims for disability rejected. There were, according to experts, between fifty and seventy-five thousand veterans suffering from tuberculosis and mental diseases receiving no hospital treatment, care, or rehabilitation. There were 41,339 disabled veterans declared eligible for vocational training and not taking it, 16,071 with claims for training pending, 15,776 with claims for training rejected. A grand total of 471,597 claims against the Government, a goodly portion of them at least just, deserving and needy ones, without action or results.
President Harding tasked Charles R. Forbes, a longtime friend and poker buddy, with running the new federal bureaucracy, giving him control of a $500 million budget the first year. A veteran himself, Forbes had previously served on the Bureau of War Risk Insurance.
Though he promised to “right many of the wrongs that have been done disabled veterans” and vowed there would be “speedy adjudication of claims,” Forbes instead used the position for his own personal financial gain and to benefit his cronies, leaving most of the veterans’ claims rejected or unaddressed, despite 30,000 new hires at the Veterans’ Bureau (many of them his friends and associates). Forbes also required bribes and kickbacks in return for contracts to build VA hospitals, many of the deals secured during “joy rides” with his contractor friends to inspect new hospital sites. During their nights of partying, drinking, and gambling, Forbes cut deals (sometimes spelled out in secret codes) with contractors who were willing to pay up. In one instance, Forbes demanded that contractor E.H. Mortimer pay him $5000 in return for a contract to build a $17 million hospital. Forbes was having an affair with Mortimer’s wife at the time.
Charles Forbes also scammed taxpayers by selling $7 million worth of medical supplies intended for veterans for a mere $600,000 (he likely got a cut of the proceeds). In his two year tenure Forbes embezzled an estimated $2 million from the Veterans’ Bureau while rejecting thousands of legitimate claims. In fact, on Forbes’s watch the Bureau only approved 47,000 claims for disability while leaving more than 200,000 piece of mail from veterans unopened. Later the the senate would conclude that “Neither Congress nor the people of the country intended that bureau employees should split hairs when the claimants affected are men who were wounded in battle.”
When Forbes defied Harding’s order to stop selling off the much needed medical supplies, he was summoned to the White House in January of 1923, whereupon President Harding grabbed Forbes by the throat and shook him “as a dog would a rat.” Harding reportedly shouted, “You double-crossing bastard!” The President agreed to allow Forbes to flee to Europe on the condition that he resign from the Veterans’ Bureau. When Forbes absconded to Europe with contractor E.H. Mortimer’s wife, Mortimer agreed to testify against him in a Congressional investigation later that year.
When Forbes returned to face the investigation, the former head of the Veterans’ Bureau was defiant, denying any illegal activity. However, Mortimer provided damaging testimony about Forbes’s shady government contract deals. At the height of the investigation Charles Cramer, Forbes’s accomplice and general counsel for the Veterans’ Bureau, committed suicide, shooting himself in the temple in his Washington, D.C., home. The public and the press were told that Cramer had been depressed because of “recent financial reverses.”
Forbes was ultimately convicted of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Government, fined $10,000, and sentenced to a prison term of two years. He served one year, eight months and six days at Leavenworth federal penitentiary.
In 1925, a columnist for the American Mercury reflected on the scandal, opining that “Congress little realizes that its creature, the Veterans Bureau, has probably made wrecks of more men since the war than the war itself took in dead and maimed.”
Currently the VA reports 291,740 backlogged claims that are more than 125 days old. That doesn’t include the veterans whose names are on secret waiting lists. Meanwhile, from 2000 to 2013, VA outlays nearly tripled, while the population of veterans declined by 4.3 million. Investor’s Business Daily reports that spending on medical care at the VA has increased by 193% during that same time period while the number of patients the VA served only increased by 68%.
The “creature” that Congress created in 1921 eventually evolved into the modern U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and continues to make “wrecks” of the lives of men and women who have served honorably in our armed forces.