By Frank DeLoache
The director of the Hefner VA Medical Center has provided apparently inaccurate information to two N.C. members of Congress regarding a Hefner employee who says he was unfairly removed from a VA nursing scholarship program.
Hefner VA Director Carolyn L. Adams sent the memo to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and U.S. Rep. Mel Watt regarding T.W. Dunning, who lost his scholarship and has questioned what has happened to thousands in scholarship money.
The memo appears to contradict language in Dunnings scholarship contract both the time Dunning had to get his degree and when he was expected to return to work.
In an e-mail, Carol Waters, Hefner VA public affairs officer, said Adams could not comment on her memo because at this writing, Mr. Dunning still has not signed a release or consent authorizing us to discuss his concerns with the media.
On a conference call Wednesday afternoon, Adams said, I feel that the information provided the members of Congress was accurate.
Dunning said he has not signed the release form because the form says he was enrolled in the VA Nursing Education Employee Program. Actually, he signed a contract for a different program the Employee Incentive Scholarship Program and Dunning says he wont sign an inaccurate document.
I will not sign a lie, he said Wednesday.
Dole and Watt apparently are accepting Adams response at face value.
In a May 11 letter to Dunning, Dole wrote, I am enclosing a letter that provides a detailed explanation of their findings. Your concerns are extremely important to me, and I am glad you afforded me the opportunity to monitor your case.
In a May 9 letter to Dunning, Watt wrote: Enclosed is a copy of correspondence I received from the Department of Veterans Affairs about my inquiry on your behalf. I hope that this information is helpful.
Advised of the errors in Adams letter, Dole Press Secretary Amy Auth repeated an earlier statement: In order to protect the privacy of constituents who contact Senator Dole, it is our office policy not to discuss casework.
Watt spokesman Corey Little e-mailed, It is Congressman Watts policy not to comment on constituent case work.
For more than a year, Dunning has battled with Hefner officials for the right to finish the nurse training program he started in October 2004 and for the VA to restore the scholarship it offered him.
In March 2005, Hefner officials told Dunning he had violated the terms of his scholarship by not maintaining enough credit hours per semester.
But Dunning has argued from the beginning that his contract did not specify that he maintain a minimum number of hours per semester. He was enrolled in a VA-recognized online program through Excelsior College in Albany, N.Y., and was current on his courses, with a 3.7 grade point average, which is an A.
Dunning finally appealed to Dole and Watt for help.
On Saturday, a day before the Salisbury Post published an article about Dunnings case, Dunning received letters from the offices of Dole and Watt.
Both letters contained the same three-paragraph statement from Adams, the newly appointed director of the Salisbury facility, about Dunnings case.
The statement has two obvious errors and a mis-statement:
First, Adams writes: Mr. Dunning believed that he had three (3) years to complete an associate degree in nursing program through Excelsior College. While I cannot say with certainty why Mr. Dunning believes that he had three (3) years to complete the program, I believe that he assumed that since his obligation period was three years, he had the same amount of time to complete the program.
In fact, Dunnings contract says he had three years to complete the program.
Section C of his contract says, In consideration of payments under the EISP (Employee Incentive Scholarship Program), the employee agrees to: … 5. Complete all coursework within a maximum of three years after enrollment for full-time students and a maximum of six years after enrollment for part-time students.
That language appears on the same page as the notation in which VA officials said he would have a three-year obligation to work at the VA after completing his education.
Second, Adams wrote, Mr. Dunning did not question local officials regarding a time limit for completion of the program; however, Katherine Veal, EISP coordinator, has stated that she did not specifically tell Mr. Dunning that he needed to complete the program by July 2005, his anticipated graduation date.
In fact, the contract that Dunning signed on May 14, 2004, says that he will start the program on Aug. 1, 2004, and complete it on July 30, 2006.
Dunning contends that VA copies of his contract have been whited out and those dates changed.
But even if the VA insists on those dates, Dunning would still have had an additional year of schooling from the 2005 date Adams cites in her memo to Dole and Watt.
In addition, the VA delayed Dunnings scholarship payments three months, so he was not able to enroll in Excelsior classes until Oct. 1, 2004 two months after the date on the VAs copy of his contract.
So, the earliest the VA could have expected Dunning to finish the program was September 30, 2006.
If Adams memo was correct about the July 2005 completion date, the VA would be requiring Dunning to complete a two-year program in 10 months.
Third, Adams wrote Dole and Watt: It is my understanding that Mr. Dunning is continuing in school to obtain his ADN at his own expense and would like to continue to work for the VA as a registered nurse.
In fact, Dunning is not currently taking classes through Excelsior, partly because the VA tried for months to make him repay $4,280 in tuition and books for the classes he had already completed. At one point, the VA garnished his wages for almost $600.
Although VA officials have since returned the garnished wages, VA officials in Salem, Va., have once again said he might still owe $3,036.82, though they have given no explanation for that figure.
Dunning says Adams has never talked to him about his case.
In an interview with a Post reporter Friday, Hefner VA officials implied they had not seen Dunnings grades in the scholarship program because he had not signed a privacy release allowing Excelsior College to disclose his grades and status.
The officials showed the reporter a blank release form for Excelsior College. They didnt use Dunnings name specifically, but he was enrolled with Excelsior when VA officials cut off his scholarship.
A review, however, of the scholarship contract Dunning signed May 14, 2004, indicates Dunnings records were always available to Hefner officials.
In two places, the contract says the employee must agree to release his or her academic record and status to the VA if the employee wants to keep the scholarship.
Just above Dunnings signature is the statement: I authorize the educational institution in which I am, or will be, enrolled to release to VA information regarding my enrollment status and academic standing, including grade point average, both now and while I am participating in the VA Employee Incentive Scholarship Program.
Dunning has said he showed all his records from Excelsior to Veal, Hefners coordinator for the nursing scholarship programs, in March 2006, the day after she first raised questions about his scholarship.
Contact Frank DeLoache at 704-797-4245 or email@example.com.
By Frank DeLoache