LITTLE ROCK — Veterans rallied Thursday at the state Capitol to call for greater oversight of the state Department of Veterans Affairs and investigations of problems at the agency.
The rally followed recent revelations that the Little Rock Veterans Home does not meet building and health codes and that residents of the home were illegally charged $587,000 in fees.
"We are here to fight the misappropriation of tax dollars, the maltreatment of our veterans and the lack of oversight and management of our tax dollars and maintenance of our veterans home," said Army veteran James Scholz of Little Rock.
State Department of Veterans Affairs Director Cissy Rucker, who was appointed by Gov. Mike Beebe in May, announced in June that the Little Rock Veterans Home would close as soon as its residents, then numbered at 70, could be moved to other facilities. The Arkansas Building Authority has said the building is not up to state building and health codes and has estimated that it would cost up to $10 million to bring it up to code.
Earlier this year, it came to light that 18 residents of the Little Rock Veterans Home had illegally been charged $587,000 in maintenance fees over the past three years. Beebe has directed money from the state’s rainy day fund be used to reimburse the veterans.
An audit of Department of Veterans Affairs this year found a general lack of oversight by former Director David Fletcher, whom Beebe appointed to the post in 2007. The audit found that, among other things, the lack of oversight led to the improper acquisition of a credit card that was used by a former agency official to make purchases at liquor stores, beauty salons and pet shops at state expense.
Fletcher stepped down in May at Beebe’s request.
Mike "Ghostrider" Hampton of Guy, a veteran of the Army, Air Force and National Guard and state representative of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, said at Thursday’s rally that conditions at the nursing home are "shameful" because of years of neglect. He said that if the state does not repair the facility or build a new one, it will be left with only one veterans’ nursing home — in Fayetteville — for a state that is home to 249,000 veterans.
Hampton called for investigations into possible malfeasance by Fletcher, his deputies, the home’s administrators and medical director.
"We also call on the current members of the Veterans Affairs Commission to resign immediately," he said.
A spokesman for U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, R-Little Rock, read a letter from Griffin in which the congressman pledged to "assist in any way I can to make a new veterans home in Little Rock a reality."
Scholz said the people who caused the problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs have not been held sufficiently accountable.
"This is how Gov. Beebe shovels garbage under the rug," said Scholz, a security consultant who ran for Congress as a Republican in Missouri two years ago and told reporters he plans to run for Arkansas’ 2nd District congressional seat in 2014.
Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said later that Beebe has not shoveled anything under the rug.
"We’ve made sure that everything that has occurred has been brought to light," DeCample said. "That’s been the focus of Director Rucker’s work since she’s gone in there."
DeCample said he is not aware of any misuse of taxpayer dollars except for the improper credit card use, which he said amounted to about $2,000. Beebe does not intend to call on any more people to step down or for any further investigation unless new evidence comes to light, he said.
"If anyone has evidence of anything else then of course we’re always interested to see it," he said.