The Veterans Administration has suspended seven employes at its Vietnam Vet Centers in Birmingham and Mobile as part of an investigation of alleged misconduct involving illegal drugs.
This is the first time a storefront Vet Center and its staff have been investigated by the VA since Congress approved the Vietnam Outreach Program in 1979. The VA refused to discuss details, but others familiar with it said investigators, including agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. attorney's office, helped search and confiscate records at the Birmingham center on Feb. 17.
Four employes at the Birmingham center, including Donald Reed, one of the first center directors hired by the VA, and three staffers who had just transferred to the Mobile center from Birmingham were suspended without pay. The Birmingham center was closed for three days after the raid until a replacement staff arrived.
Reed, who last year testified before a congressional committee about the effectiveness of the Vet Center program, called the probe a "politically motivated sham" designed to undermine the national Vet Center program. "It's no secret that some people in the government and VA don't feel the Vietnam vet deserves or needs our centers," said Reed. "This thing stinks of politics."
Reed contends the VA "severely damaged" the Vet Center program by allowing DEA agents to search the Birmingham center and by using an undercover agent, who posed as a Vietnam veteran with emotional and drug related-problems, to infiltrate the Birmingham operation.
"These centers were supposed to be safe-houses where a vet could talk about Mylais, drug problems or anything else without being afraid the government would punish him," said Reed, who served as a helicopter pilot in Vietnam in 1969. "Now, who's going to trust us? The DEA and government have taken our files, tapped our telephones and secretly recorded us. Who knows what agencies may be going through our files?"
VA Administrator Robert P. Nimmo wrote in a statement: "I took the actions I felt necessary to ensure the integrity of the program . . . I want to reconfirm my total commitment to the principles of the Vietnam Outreach Program." Records from the Birmingham center were taken to a vault at a local VA hospital, a VA spokesman said, where "they will remain confidential."
Reed and his staff of counselors were attending opening ceremonies for a new Vet Center in Mobile when agents raided their office. Ala-bama Sens. Howell Heflin, a Democrat, and Jeremiah Denton, a Republican, had been invited to speak at the Mobile opening, but neither attended. Heflin decided not to go after he received a telephone call from the VA warning him about the investigation, a spokesman for Hef-lin said. Denton was in Panama at the time.
The Birmingham center was opened in March, 1980, by then-VA Administrator Max Cleland. It was one of the first centers in the nation and has been honored repeatedly by civic groups. Reed and two other counselors, who also were suspended, are members of the VA's national Vet Center training team.
The suspended employes said that all they have been told so far is that an undercover agent identified as Barry Gipson has told authorities that he saw four staff members smoking marijuana at the center during a Veterans Day party.
The VA currently has 107 Vet Centers and plans to open 29 more this year. Nearly 95,000 Vietnam-era veterans and 60,000 of their family members have sought help at the centers, which were authorized by Congress in 1979 to offer "low-key, personalized help" to veterans suffering emotional or drug-related problems, according to the VA.