16 November 2016

Our C-123 Agent Orange Freedom of Information Act Lawsuits: $120,000 spent in legal fees

This month I had three questions from other veterans about why our effort to get documents released from the VA and USAF managed to cost over $120,000. Easy answer – because that's all I had to spend; if we'd had more money and more time we would've spent it to get more documents uncovered.

I began filing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests in early 2011. I soon asked Paul Bailey to file some as well to see if the responses produced different results. Initially, these went to Davis-Mothan Air Force Base and Hill Air Force Base where responses were timely and quite revealing. Several CDs were released and on them we found the first test reports showing dioxin contamination, destruction of the aircraft as toxic waste, internal memos from the Air Force consultant in many other documents that focused the next four years of our effort.

We had to study thousands of documents
Eventually we identified two major areas for further investigation. The first was the general manner in which VA initially developed its response to our exposure claims and then the finer details of that VA opposition. There were several damning "gotcha" discoveries revealing the VA deception, such as the VA claim to have an "overwhelming preponderance of evidence" against our claims being mere policy statement, not fact or science. (#1: VA Lawsuit)

The second was the Air Force 2012 C-123 Consultative Letter in which the US Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine examined the aircraft contamination. That report generally concluded the aircraft was contaminated and aircrew exposure possible yet, illogically, somehow unlikely to be harmful. This letter was seized upon by the VA as part of their justification for denying our claims and thus was very important to us. A confidential Air Force source had told us the report was tainted by command interference and was scientifically flawed. (#2: USAF Lawsuit)

These FOIA requests to VA and USAF were submitted properly, acknowledged by the government but never fulfilled. The Air Force initially indicated its cooperation, although two years past and it became clear no substantive response was forthcoming. The VA first refused to waive research fees and then, to stall us, demanded thousands of dollars for only a partial response. Then, that response failed to materialize even though we successfully appealed the estimated fee requirement.

At this point citizens can contact FOIA ombudsman in these departments but there we were also stonewalled. The only option left was federal court action compel the agencies involved to obey the law and meet their requirements. This is where most citizens find themselves helpless because the agencies involved have free legal support from their own staffs and the Department of Justice but a citizen must retain private counsel to go to court.

And that's where $120,000 of legal fees were needed.

We filed FOIA lawsuits in the US District Court of Washington DC and spent nearly three years and all that money to get the documents we required and which we are entitled to at the outset. A few papers were withheld for personal privacy or under the government's concept of "Deliberative Process" which is used to prevent discovery of how they came to conclusions (new FOIA rules enacted this year help correct this.) Interestingly, a part of the USAF FOIA was to the Air Force Surgeon General – that response was about 300 pages what's only 20 pages or so with text, all the rest redacted for one reason or another. We had ask – what the heck did the Air Force want to keep secret about our health and this 60-year-old airplane? We never found out.

Lesson learned #1: Federal agency compliance with FOIA requirements is very poor
throughout the government, but especially the VA and the military departments. Without
hundreds of thousands of dollars to pursue one's rights under the FOIA law there simply is
no way to proceed and our rights are trampled. Both VA and USAF agreed in court we
were right and they were wrong – we'd been entitled by law to the requested materials and
should have been given them years earlier when first sought in our FOIAs. .

Lessons learned #2: The 2014 Institute of Medicine C-123 Committee was provided all these documents and from them, and from other inputs, convinced the VA we'd been exposed and VA soon agreed. An especially alarming and disappointing IOM observation was offered from their review of documents we discovered:
Reports "from those in the military or associated with the VA tend to minimize the possibility of an increased risk of exposure and adverse health outcomes."

It is by such improper manipulation and deception that the VA denies veterans our legally required benefit of the doubt, subjecting veterans to a standard of absolute proof rather than mere equipoise. It was by this manipulation and deception that VA ignored confirmation of our exposures given at years earlier by the CDC and other authorities.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Got something to share? Nothing commercial or off-topic, please.