- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dear Sgt Shaft,

The other day, I had a client with a Defense Financing and Accounting Service 1099-R, who advised me that her deceased husband had been a sergeant major of the Marine Corps for 27 years. She is now getting her Veterans Affairs widow’s benefit, and she also is getting the difference between the widow’s benefit and the amount she would have drawn on her husband’s survivor benefit plan. Her husband retired in 1973 and died in 1998. He paid into SBP for all those years. I asked if she had been reimbursed for the amount he had paid in, and she said she had not. My SBP cost is now more than $100 per month. If his was half of that and he paid in for 15 years, that is about $9,000. I think this should be reimbursed with interest. After all, he in effect paid for a life insurance policy he did not get. Is there any way she can recover this money?

Thank you for your reply

John E

CMDR, USNR (retired)

Dear John

DFAS is set up to automatically refund to his surviving spouse the portion of SBP premiums paid by a retiree but not covered by Dependency and Indemnity Compensation or other pension. DFAS must first tax that refund because the premiums were withheld on a pretax basis. The widow may have received the refund soon after her husband died and not realized it. Nonetheless, she can petition DFAS to audit her annuity account to ensure that she has received all that was owed to her.

Shaft notes

The Sarge dittos the remarks made by Larry Scott of VAWatchdog.org concerning a reporter who got involved in a VA scrap but had to know better.

While trying to interview a veteran at a VA hospital, radio reporter David Schultz didn’t play by the rules.

Now, disregarding the above, some of his brother and sister journalists are touting him as the latest champion of First Amendment rights, fighting the abuses of a malevolent government bureaucracy.

Mr. Schultz, a reporter for radio station WAMU-FM at American University, was covering an event at the VA hospital in Washington.

According VA officials, Mr. Schultz did not identify himself as a reporter by signing in to the event (first no-no) and then tried to interview a veteran attending the meeting without filling out release forms (second no-no).

Hospital public affairs officer Gloria Hairston approached the pair, telling Mr. Schultz he could not conduct an interview until they both had signed consent forms. She summoned hospital security guards and demanded that Mr. Schultz hand over all of his equipment. After a conversation and a telephone consultation with WAMU News Director Jim Asendio, Mr. Schultz eventually gave Ms. Hairston the flash card of his digital recorder.

This should have ended at that point, with Mr. Schultz and the veteran signing consent forms and doing the interview. It could have been that easy. Another reporter and photographer in attendance had signed forms and were going about their business.

But Mr. Schultz left the meeting and then reported his tale of woe and abuse on WAMU.

Mr. Schultz has garnered the support of some high-powered journalists who support the claim of government abuse and violation of First Amendment rights. Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post reported that Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, wrote to VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki, “The seizure by the government of newsgathering equipment is the kind of thing we sometimes see in dictatorships, not in the United States. For a government official to take a reporter’s equipment away while he is conducting an interview amounts to the kind of prior restraint that has been repeatedly found unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.”

But wait!

Mr. Schultz’s equipment wouldn’t have been seized if he had just signed in as a reporter and then signed the proper release forms to enable him to interview the veteran.

So, who’s the bad guy here?

Mr. Scott has spent most of his adult life working in the radio news business as a reporter, anchor and news director, including as an anchor gig at WNBC Radio in New York.

So, looking at this from an old reporter’s point of view, he sees a problem for Mr. Schultz.

How did this happen? Just two possible explanations can be rooted out:

1. Mr. Schultz didn’t know the rules. If so, the responsibility lies with his news director for inadequate training.

2. Mr. Schultz did know the rules. If so, he alone is responsible for breaking the rules and precipitating the incident.

As much as we love to hate our big, bad government bureaucracies, the VA is not the guilty party here.

It is Mr. Schultz who is at fault - but he doesn’t get it.

According to Mr. Schultz:

“The story really is about [the veteran] and about why the VA doesn’t want him to talk and why the VA is trying to suppress his story.”

See, I told you he doesn’t get it. The VA would have allowed Mr. Schultz to conduct the interview, just as it allowed the other reporter at the event to conduct interviews. If he had only taken care of a little bit of paperwork, we could have heard the veteran’s story that Mr. Schultz claims the VA is trying to suppress.

How will this all end? A resolution will be found, the veteran with the story to tell will be interviewed, the First Amendment will remain intact, and Mr. Schultz will be forgotten.

• Send letters to Sgt. Shaft, c/o John Fales, P.O. Box 65900, Washington, DC 20035-5900; fax 301/622-3330, call 202/257-5466 or e-mail [email protected]

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