Gansler proposes veteran initiatives, blasts performance of Brown and state agency


File: Attorney General and gubernatorial candidate Doug Gansler (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Maryland gubernatorial hopeful Douglas F. Gansler proposed some steps Wednesday to improve the lives of military veterans and accused the agency that serves them of the kind of “ineffective management” that, he says, undercut the state’s online health insurance exchange.

Gansler’s attack was directly aimed at his Democratic primary rival, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, an Army reservist who has highlighted his own military service during the campaign and touted initiatives undertaken during his tenure to help others who wore the uniform. Brown has been also responsible for overseeing the implementation of federal health reforms in Maryland.

A news release put out by the Gansler campaign quoted several former service members criticizing the performance of the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs. They include Wilbert Forbes, who was a deputy secretary at the agency earlier in the tenure of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D).

Forbes, a Vietnam veteran who resigned in 2010 amid a dispute with the department’s new secretary, said the agency was“disgracefully mismanaged and is an embarrassment to all Marylanders who claim to care about our veterans.” He said the agency has been plagued by high staff turnover and inadequate services, among other problems.

“The lieutenant governor has said the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs has been effective,” Forbes said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Bob Sharps, a former director of outreach and advocacy at the department who resigned around the same time as Forbes, said the level of responsiveness to veterans dropped off significantly after he and several others left.

Both the agency’s current leadership and the Brown campaign forcefully pushed back against the criticisms, suggesting the agency’s performance improved significantly in recent years and that Gansler, the state’s attorney general, was exploiting disgruntled former employees to try to score political points.

Jerry Boden, chief of staff at the veterans agency and a long-time personal friend of Brown, said any representations of mismanagement were “totally inaccurate.” He pointed to statistics showing an increase in the number of claims for service-connected injuries that the agency had helped Marylanders file with the federal government. Between fiscal years 2008 and 2013, that number rose from 2,695 to 4,737, Boden said.

Besides helping veterans secure federal, state and local benefits, the agency, which has about 80 employees and a $24 million annual budget, runs five veterans cemeteries and a state veterans home in Charlotte Hall, Md.

“It’s a sad statement that the Gansler campaign can’t release a plan to help veterans without tearing down Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown and his service to the state,” said Brown campaign manager Justin Schall. “After Gansler questioned whether or not Anthony had a ‘real job’ while he served a tour in the Iraq War, we all hoped that going forward Gansler would attempt to stay positive on veterans issues, but I guess that’s asking too much from Doug.”

Schall was referring to an episode last month, in which Gansler questioned Brown’s leadership abilities at a candidates’ forum and expressed frustration that the lieutenant governor was airing ads highlighting his 2004 deployment to Iraq as a military lawyer.

“You know, his [campaign] ads are about how he was a lawyer in Iraq, and that’s all fine and good, but this is a real job, and we need to have somebody who actually has leadership experience,” Gansler said at the forum.

Nearly lost in Wednesday’s back-and-forth between the candidates were the proposals Gansler put forth.

He wants to gradually expand an income tax exemption on military pensions, from $5,000 to $50,000.

Gansler also proposed “Operation Home Base,” an initiative under the state would reach out to soldiers stationed on military bases to connect them to services, such as job training and housing assistance, before they return home to Maryland.

Gansler said he would also do more to connect veterans with opportunities in higher education and to improve transportation services for those living in outlying areas.

He said he would work with the Maryland congressional delegation to push for federal legislation that would speed up notoriously slow processing of federal veteran disability claims.

Brown also has proposed a package of veterans initiatives, including a similar tax break. He launched a group of veterans who are backing his campaign earlier this month, and has been endorsed by a national group, VoteVets.org. At a meeting last week of fellow veterans, several praised the work of the state in recent years to improve services, including the help it offers veterans trying to establish businesses.

In seeking make the case about management problems at the state veterans agency, Gansler aides pointed to legislative audits conducted in recent years that exposed several problems. The most recent audit, issued in December, detailed some accounting problems going back several years related to $1.4 million in federal funds.

Del. Guy J. Guzzone (D-Howard), co-chairman of a legislative committee that reviews audits, said he does not like to minimize any audit findings but said those related to the veterans agency are “not what we would consider egregious.”

Guzzone, who has endorsed Brown for governor, said each year his committee reviews about 90 agency audits and holds hearings on those with the most serious findings.

“This would not rise to that level,” he said of the veterans agency.

John Wagner has covered Maryland government and politics for The Post since 2004.
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