- Associated Press - Friday, August 22, 2014

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - A Billings man who transports disabled veterans said he was threatened with a $50 fine for appearing in a photograph alongside a newspaper article critical of a new Veterans Administration clinic.

Ed Saunders was featured in an Aug. 15 Billings Gazette photo with an article about problems with the opening of the $6.3 million Billings clinic. Saunders was among those critical of the facility, the Gazette reported Friday (http://bit.ly/1AExOnN ).

An investigation is underway into problems in the national VA Health Care System. Montana’s facilities at Fort Harrison and Billings are among the sites being investigated further.

Three days after the photograph and the story were published, the Disabled American Veterans driver and public affairs officer was asked by a VA police officer to write a statement about his involvement with the photograph, Saunders said in a sworn statement.

Officer Steve McCullom told Saunders that unauthorized photographs on VA property are not allowed, and the Gazette did not have permission to take the photo of him, Saunders said.

The rule is a way for the VA to check on possible terrorist activity, Saunders attributed McCullom as saying.

McCollum said being in an unauthorized photo is a rules violation subject to a $50 fine, Saunders said.

Saunders said he felt McCollum’s actions were meant to “intimidate” him. He has not been formally cited with an offense and has not paid a fine.

VA spokesman Randy Martin said the issue is patient privacy.

“As we welcome media to our facility, our policies require photographers to have prior authorization from the patient before any photos can be taken,” Martin said.

Federal regulations allow news photographs to be taken at entrances, lobbies, foyers or in other places designated by the head of the facility.

“Our staff took a picture of Mr. Saunders in an open, public commons area,” Gazette editor Darrell Ehrlick said. “For a federal government agency to try to restrict or limit access in a place where any member of the public could just walk in seems like this has more to do with limiting the type of news and information about the VA.”

U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, said the VA needs to focus on delivering health care.

“The VA has bigger fights to fight than this,” he said.

The experience has compelled Saunders, a disabled veteran of the Persian Gulf War, to halt his own medical care in the VA system, he said.

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