General Assignment

Investigation: Oakland VA Office Lost Thousands of Veterans Claims

By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- The Oakland office of Veterans Affairs improperly filed and then lost about 14,000 unprocessed veterans benefit claims, some dating back to the 1990s, according to a federal government investigation released Wednesday. 

No one will ever know the fate of those 14,000 informal applications for benefits found in a filing cabinet in 2012 because after they were discovered by a VA management support team, they disappeared, according to a report by the federal Office of Inspector General, which investigated problems at the office last summer. 

The Office of Inspector General was tipped off to the sloppy practices at the Oakland office by Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Oroville. He said as soon as he took office in January 2013, he started hearing from frustrated veterans who complained they were getting the runaround from the Oakland office. 

Later he started hearing from employees in the office about an "oppressive" working atmosphere and shoddy work practices. 

LaMalfa said he is gratified the investigation took place and that office director Julianna Boor, who took over early last year, instituted some new training, but he is still not satisfied. He said he would really like to hear from former office director Douglas Bragg, who retired in January 2014. 

"If those records are unfindable, ever, then someone needs to pay a price for allowing that to happen," LaMalfa said. "I'm hopeful they have changed in a new direction, and a lot of good work is coming out, but is it going to be sustained so that they that catch up on the backlog?" 

The Oakland office has more than 300 employees and handles claims for veterans throughout Northern California. It currently has about 30,000 claims pending for more than 125 days. 

According to the Office of Inspector General, a VA management team came to the office in 2012 to help sort out its problems and found about 14,000 informal claims -- those requesting initial assistance -- in a filing cabinet that had not been processed. Some were over 20 years old. 

But when the Office of Inspector General arrived for an unannounced site visit last July, nearly two years later, none of those records could be found. Investigators did find a spread sheet with a list of old, unprocessed claims. A sample of those found "staff did not maintain adequate records or provide proper supervision of trainees to ensure informal claims received timely processing." 

LaMalfa said he will continue to push for more oversight and investigations into management at the Oakland office. 

"We need the answer to where did they go and why," LaMalfa said. "This report cannot end here, and we won't let it." 

Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Stockton, who sits on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, piled on with criticism of the Oakland VA office. 

"Losing these letters and other records is completely unacceptable," McNerney said in a statement. "This report is yet another unfortunate example of mismanagement at the VA and illustrates the need for transparency at the department. 

A call to the Oakland VA office was not immediately returned. 

Oakland Funeral for Slain 14 Year Old Draws More Than 1,000

By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND  — Adults paused and wept; others stopped for only a second or two and kept on going. 

More than 1,000 people attended the funeral Tuesday in East Oakland for Davon Ellis, an Oakland Technical High School honor student and football player who was shot to death Feb. 28 on Brookdale Avenue in the Fruitvale district as he and two friends walked to a store. 

The high-profile funeral brought family and friends, a representative from Rep. Barbara Lee's office, Oakland school board member Nina Senn and Oakland Councilwoman Annie Campbell Washington. 

"He should not be in that casket," his father, Christopher Ellis, said during the funeral. "No family should go through this. It doesn't make any sense. We need to work as a community to clean up these streets. I'm going to spend the rest of my days to clean up the community." 

A peace march is planned for Davon 1:30 p.m. Sunday starting at Mosswood Park to Oakland Technical High School. 

"It's for all the kids," said Todd Walker, a close friend of the family. "We're tired of losing our kids. There's going to be a lot of kids there. And it's a march, not a protest." 

Christopher Ellis, at times overcome by tears, said that his son was "everything" to him and that he dedicated his life to making sure "everything was right for Davon." 

Like many of the other speakers at the funeral, held at Acts Full Gospel Church, Ellis called for an end to the violence. 

"At one point in time, black people had love for each other," Ellis said. "We gotta get back to that. There's too much fighting and too much shooting. We need to start showing more love and compassion toward each other." 

Police have not made any arrests in the case, but last week they did have a person of interest who was in custody for an unrelated crime, said Oakland police Chief Sean Whent. 

Russell Winston Jr., who coached Davon on the Bay Area Spartans football team, said he knew him from the time he was "this little chocolate boy, just galloping all over the place." 

"Davon was what us coaches call a coach's player," Winston said. "He never talked back. If Davon made a mistake, he'd say, 'My bad, coach. I got you.' He was the true meaning of an all-star player. He was an all-star in the classroom as well." 

Winston said Davon was a feared football player on defense. 

"You better not throw to his side; he's going to take it out of the air," Winston said. "On offense he played running back, wing back, right end, left end and receiver." 

LaKisha Ellis, Davon's stepmother, said she is going to miss Davon's friends coming over to her house and eating everything in sight. 

"Davon had a lot of friends who would come to my house, raid my refrigerator, raid my snack cabinet," Ellis said. "You guys are welcome to come to my house and still raid my refrigerator because that's what's going to keep him alive." 

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Attorney General Eric Holder Calls for Police Body Cameras at Oakland Meeting

By Doug Oakley
OAKLAND -- Attorney General Eric Holder reiterated his call for local police to wear body cameras during a round-table discussion in downtown Oakland Thursday that brought local police chiefs and community advocates together to talk trust. 

After police shootings of African-Americans in Missouri, New York and Ohio triggered violent nationwide protests and spawned the Black Lives Matter movement, Holder started holding similar meetings across the country and has done so in Atlanta; Cleveland; Memphis, Tennessee; Chicago; and Philadelphia. 

"What has struck me in all these meetings is that people on both sides want the same things," said Holder, who mentioned that his brother is a retired police officer. "They want to be safe, they want their children to be safe, and they want to be treated in a fair way. Police officers want to be safe and be respected." 

The Oakland meeting was the last of the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice. Holder will step down from his post in a few weeks. 

Holder made public comments at the Oakland Federal Building, which included a call for an end to racial profiling, for about 10 minutes before closing the meeting to the press. 

In addition to local police chiefs like Oakland's Sean Whent and Berkeley's Michael Meehan, the meeting included Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf, Rep. Barbara Lee and U.S. Attorney Melinda Haag. Bishop Bob Jackson of Acts Full Gospel, Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter, and representatives from East Oakland Youth Development Center and Youth UpRising were among the community leaders attending the round table. 

"Body cameras tend to reduce the number of complaints and are a very useful tool in trying to determine what was the nature of action between officers and someone in the community," Holder said. 

In the East Bay, the issue of police body cameras and race jumped to the front page Tuesday, when two Emeryville police officers shot and killed a female theft and carjacking suspect they say pointed a gun at them. 

Emeryville police took the unusual step of identifying the race and gender of the officers who shot the woman in a news release issued Wednesday. 

"One officer was female and the other officer was African-American," the statement said. It also said that one of the two police officers who shot the woman was wearing a body camera but turned it on only after the two fired their weapons. 

And in a statement the day before Holder's Oakland meeting, BART police Chief Kenton Rainey said local communities lost "confidence in our department following the Oscar Grant incident in 2009." Grant was shot in the back and killed by a BART police officer who said he mistook his gun for a Taser. 

Rainey said he understands "the anger and raw feelings; understanding the community's perspective is a key part of any equation with a healing solution." He said one of the most important aspects of his department overhaul was a "comprehensive body camera program." 

The body cameras, Rainey said, are "an opportunity to show how far we have come in our reform efforts and our commitment to constitutional policing principals." 

Schaaf said before the meeting that Oakland police have come a long way in instituting court-ordered reforms. 

"Oakland police have not shot anyone in two years," Schaaf said. "We need to make sure our reforms are permanent and substantial. But we have to do more to close the trust gap between government and the people we serve." 

Regina Jackson, president of East Oakland Youth Development Center, who participated in the discussion, said she directed her concerns to Haag about training for police in how to deal with those who are mentally ill. 

"I said I don't know if folks in public safety have any strategy to deal with people with mental illness," Jackson said. "People are already victimized by mental illness, and most of the time it's the illness and not willful disregard. That is something I'm really interested in having them take a look at." 

Jackson also said Oakland police need to "look more like the people in the community and be from the community" in order to do a better job at building trust. 

Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley said Oakland police are short-handed, and, in times of crisis, officers who work overtime are stressed out. 

When asked if that stress leads to mistakes, O'Malley said, "I think they are working a lot of hours." Nevertheless, she said "police need to do their jobs in a fair and respectful way." 

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