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Indiana veterans affairs head resigns after grants scrutiny

December 7, 2018

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The leader of Indiana’s veterans affairs agency resigned Friday following reports that he had awarded money to veterans who worked under him at the agency that was intended to go to veterans struggling to make ends meet.

Gov. Eric Holcomb accepted James Brown’s resignation as director of the Indiana Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and in a statement he praised the decorated Vietnam veteran, who had led the agency since 2013.

“Sgt. Maj. Brown is a good man with a distinguished service record,” Holcomb said. “I am grateful for his longstanding service to our state and country.”

Brown’s resignation came a week after reports surfaced questioning the agency’s administration of Indiana’s Military Family Relief Fund , which was created in 2007.

The fund, which is financed primarily with fees from sales of veteran license plates and “Support Our Troops” plates, grants money to veterans to help them pay for food, housing, utilities, medical services and transportation.

The Indianapolis Star reported that at least 11 agency employees who are veterans — and many of whom make $40,000 to $50,000 a year — have collectively received about $40,000 in recent years from the fund. One employee received $1,100 for new tires. Another employee’s application was approved the day it was submitted, even though veterans facing homelessness and job losses were required to wait weeks or months for assistance.

The newspaper also reported that while veterans not employed by the state agency who sought funding faced multiple requests for additional information about their requests, documents showed that veterans who are agency employees faced few such hurdles.

Indiana’s Veterans Commission approved draft rules Oct. 5 for the fund, but plans to make more changes before submitting a final version to the state Attorney General’s Office for legal review.

The Indianapolis Star reported that had those draft rules been adopted years ago, Veterans’ Affairs employees likely would have been precluded from receiving funds. While the proposed rules do not explicitly prohibit agency employees from receiving money, income limitations based on federal poverty guidelines probably would.

WRTV-TV reported that while veterans and their families can get up to $2,500 in funding, records showed that grants of more than $2,500 were awarded to both employees of the agency and the fund itself. It also reported that two veterans had raised concerns in February about the fund’s administration.

Most veterans also were strictly held to a $2,500 lifetime cap on aid, but at least four of Brown’s employees who are veterans received more than that, including the manager of the program, who dipped into the fund multiple times.

Most of the grants in question were awarded during a period of 2 ½ years when veterans affairs officials hadn’t adopted rules governing the $1.7 million program.

Brown, who approved the grants, defended his actions, arguing that his employees had a right to the money just as any other veteran did.

“There is no great tragedy here,” he told the Star last week. “No laws have been broken.”

The State Board of Accounts is now conducting an audit of the program.

Holcomb, who re-appointed Brown in 2016 as the agency’s director and is ultimately responsible for the agency, has said little about the questionable spending. As recently as Tuesday, he would only say that he is awaiting the results of the audit.

Brown was originally appointed to lead the agency in 2013 by Vice President Mike Pence, who was then Indiana’s governor.

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