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"A hard time getting along"

Old and worn American flag. Stock image.

An audit released in June by the Office of the State Auditor's Division of Performance outlines years of mismanagement and infighting at the North Dakota Administrative Committee on Veterans Affairs (ACOVA).

This is the third time since 2007 that the organization, which is tasked with overseeing the state Department of Veterans Affairs, has drawn scrutiny from state officials.

"I've been in the Legislature for 28 years and from time to time we've had to straighten them out," said Rich Wardner, North Dakota Senate majority leader. "That's always been a problem because the different groups just don't get along."

A North Dakota Legislative Council report from 2009 showed "infighting" issues have plagued the committee for nearly a decade, issues which prompted recommendations to redraft the Department of Veterans Affairs' governance structure in North Dakota.

The proposed changes included: reducing the size of ACOVA from 15 to 7 members, with the commissioner of Veterans Affairs serving as chairman of the committee; revising the powers and duties of ACOVA to remove the supervision of the Department of Veterans Affairs; and to mandate that the commissioner of Veterans Affairs be appointed by the governor.

After heated debates and contention, House Bill 1057 (which included all the above changes) failed to pass. With the death of HB 1057, the issue remained unresolved for nearly 10 years until rediscovered during the most recent 2018 audit.

Priority disagreements noted by the audit indicate a history of infighting among the various stakeholders — including numerous uses of open records requests, disapproval letters, meeting minutes reflecting heated discussions, reprimands, terminations and retaliatory lawsuits.

"If it's not working because of infighting, why are they still using the same system?" said James Stansbury, a veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The audit identified ACOVA representatives who testified both for and against the same piece of legislation, demonstrating what the audit said was a "clear lack of a unified message" for veteran needs.

Comments made during ACOVA meetings suggested that the governor agreed with changes to the structure and expressed his desire to see representatives from newer organizations and younger people be included on the committee, something the current structure all but prevents.

The current structure stipulates that only members of the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars, Disabled American Veterans, AMVETs and Vietnam Veterans of America may elect veterans to serve on the committee. While these committee nominations can come from outside of the member organizations, records indicate that there has never been a non-member selected.

The organizations comprising the electorate have struggled to recruit newer veterans to join their long-standing organizations according to multiple reports, an issue the audit claims raises serious concerns for the sustainability of ACOVA.

Younger veterans are more inclined to join the more recently established organizations over the long-standing organizations, according to recent PEW Research studies—a sentiment echoed by members of these newer groups.

"Lots of my generation of vets don't want to go sit in some old smoke-filled room full of old people drinking stale beer talking about the good old days," said Stansbury. "We want to actively address the issues of a broken system - not just be members of a glorified social group rampant with political fighting."

The audit found that member organizations within ACOVA have increasingly found difficulties in finding eager members to serve on the committee from within their own ranks, leading to concerns of apathetic service where veterans need it most.

Additionally, the audit found certain stakeholders indicated that those who do serve on the governing body lacked expertise, qualifications for membership and many had limited leadership or relevant professional experience — adding to the concerns of mismanagement.

Additional reports of abuse and retaliatory action by committee members have led to accusations of bullying and threats within the veteran service organizations.

According to five complaints reviewed, veteran service officers were subjected to verbal abuse and retaliatory action by the committee. One former employee of the North Dakota Department of Veterans Affairs (NDDVA) has an active federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission lawsuit against the department.

The chairman of the ACOVA committee is Dean Overby, who has been a member of the committee since 2004 and chaired the committee for the past six years.

In an email response, NDDVA staff member Lonnie Wangen forwarded ACOVA's responses to the audit, noting that neither the NDDVA nor ACOVA had received a draft of the audit to review for accuracy prior to issuance.

"The 'certain stakeholders' who indicated that ACOVA lacked expertise, qualifications and leadership skills obviously were not aware of who the ACOVA is," the response stated.

The response also noted that the topics of discussion concerning HB 1057 stems from a study dating to 2007, which the committee says proves sustainability concerns raised in 2009 and again with this audit are unsubstantiated.

Response from NDDVA and ACOVA expressed their concern with the performance of the audit, citing numerous issues with the scope and methodology of the state auditor's office. According to ACOVA, no member of the committee or the five service organizations was contacted during the performance of the audit.

According to the audit, the Office of the State Auditor conducted the performance audit in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.

"The State Auditor's office protects the integrity of government to keep the public's faith and trust that their government and its officials are transparent and accountable to the people who elect them," State Auditor Joshua Gallion said.

Some veterans advocates expressed their displeasure concerning the lack of communication between ACOVA and the veteran community regarding the audit.

"ACOVA has supported and played major roles in impeding collaboration with veterans advocates, denying veteran opportunities to address the governing board, ineffective commissioner evaluations and no strategic planning," said Leslie Ross, a veterans advocate, in a letter to Chairman Overby, summarizing a complaint she had previously sent.

According to the letter, disseminated widely among various stakeholders of North Dakota veterans advocacy groups, Ross notes, "Today is day 1,380 without response since my complaint was filed."

"I have sent a request to Mr. Overby every 30 to 45 days without response," Ross said. "It's time for the public to know the truth about ACOVA and how their negligence and infighting have created a toxic environment of distrust that in due course has damaged our collective cause of helping veterans. It's time that ACOVA responds to these audit findings, veteran complaints and do what they were selected to do — put veterans first."

For a full transcript of the audit, visit www.nd.gov/auditor/2018-veterans-affairs-oversight-structure-performance...

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