Indiana OKs new rules for veterans' agency after scrutiny
By ASSOCIATED PRESS Published: January 4, 2019
INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana officials have approved new rules to rein in the state's veterans' affairs agency after its leader resigned amid reports he awarded grants intended for struggling veterans to the department's own employees.
The rules impose income limits and other restrictions that likely would have prevented the Indiana Department of Veterans' Affairs from awarding more than $40,000 to nearly a dozen middle-income employees.
The Indiana Veterans' Affairs Commission voted Thursday to formally adopt the rules. The department's leader, James Brown, resigned last month following reports he awarded money to veterans who worked under him that was intended to go to veterans struggling to make ends meet.
Brown's resignation came after The Indianapolis Star and WRTV-TV questioned the agency's administration of Indiana's Military Family Relief Fund, which was created in 2007 to aid veterans facing financial hardship. Brown denied wrongdoing.
The $1.7 million annual program is funded with fees from specialty veteran license plates, but a lack of rules allowed Brown, a decorated Vietnam veteran, to award grants to his employees.
While the agency employees who got the grants were veterans, applications and personnel records obtained by The Indianapolis Star cast doubt on whether they should have received money through the program, given that their state salaries were $40,000 to $50,000 a year.
The newly approved rules take discretion away from the agency's director for grants above $2,500, and instead require review and approval by the commission, which is appointed by the governor. Under the rules, only veterans whose gross household income is no more than twice the federal poverty guideline may receive help. That's a limit of $24,120 for an individual or $49,200 for a household of four.
"There was discretion before and perhaps there weren't the best decisions made, but this rule will take care of any ambiguity," said Commission Chairman Erika Steuterman, a retired Air Force major general.
Lawmakers required the commission to establish rules for the program in 2016, but veteran advocates had long expressed concerns about potential abuse. The commission began the rule-making process in 2016, but it stalled for more than a year before pressure from veteran advocates forced that work to begin again last May.
Democratic Rep. Karlee Macer of Indianapolis said it's embarrassing that it took so long to get the rules in place.
"It's taken almost three years to get accomplished and we've had a lot of shenanigans in between then," she said. "It's embarrassing to veterans and it's embarrassing to our state."
Information from: The Indianapolis Star