New York state's Division of Veterans' Affairs established new ethics rules following an investigation showing two counselors received large inheritances of cash and property from vets they helped both at work and outside of it.
Inspector General Catherine Leahy Scott concluded in a report Tuesday that those are ethical lapses, citing inadequate supervision and a faulty conflict-of-interest policy that was recently revised.
"Counselors should not be using their position to enrich themselves with money or gifts from veterans, but must provide services to veterans with competence and diligence," Scott said.
One counselor accepted gifts including a $23,000 car. She was given access to the World War II vet's bank accounts to help manage his affairs, though she also used them to pay $2,500 of her own bills, the report said. The counselor inherited his house and stocks after he died in 2010, which the veteran's family contested, though the will was upheld.
Another counselor received a $28,000 mutual fund in a bequest from a veteran and his wife.
New York law prohibits state workers from receiving gifts of more than nominal value. Both counselors still work for the state. Scott's findings have been referred to the state Joint Commission on Public Ethics.
The Division of Veterans Affairs was established to advocate for veterans and their families to ensure they get all authorized benefits, including help filing applications for federal, state, local and private benefits, obtaining documents and following up with correspondence and appeals.
Its new policy specifically prohibits employees from accepting gifts or bequests from current or former clients to whom counselors gave services or advice. It also prohibits staff from helping their own relatives as part of their official duties.
Tracy Kinn, a counselor in Erie County since 2001, acknowledged she didn't report the car the veteran gave her to drive when he no longer could, that she didn't believe it was required, according to investigators. The report noted that the state ethics law changed in 2008 to prohibit employees from accepting gifts of "more than nominal value," while earlier it prohibited gifts "of more than $75 from disqualified sources."
Kinn told investigators she didn't consider gifts from friendships maintained outside her job a "veteran issue." Scott said the veteran was still a client of the division at the time.
Pamela Tanner, a counselor in Onondaga County since 1999, said she had helped a World War II veteran and former prisoner of war with a benefits claim and later helped him and his wife with shopping, lawn care, errands and household chores, the report said. She had limited contact with them after 2005 when the vet moved into a nursing home and his wife got care from neighbors. She told investigators that when first asked in 2010, she told the veteran's wife not to name her as a beneficiary, then learned of the bequest in 2011 after both died.
A relative of the veteran complained.