After meeting in closed session for nearly five hours Tuesday, May 31, Orange County Commissioners decided to close the county’s veterans service office until at least Tuesday, June 7, while an investigation is being conducted in the department. As revealed by the length of time needed to discuss the matter, closing the office - even temporarily - was no easy decision, County Judge Carl Thibodeaux told The Examiner.
“A lot of people depend on that service here in the county,” he said. “Their only other outlet would be to go to Houston for the help we offer here.” Thibodeaux said that shouldn’t be the case, however, as the county anticipates a speedy return to business as usual at the veterans service office. “Our goal is to get it open by Tuesday (June 7). We understand that there are veterans out there who will be in limbo while we sort this thing out. But, our goal is to get it back open soon; and make it even better than ever when it does open. It’s an unfortunate situation that we can’t do the investigation while the facility is open.”
The investigation at head is "administrative" Thibodeaux said, after the county court received a complaint of wrongdoing. All six employees in the office, including Veterans Service Officer Jerry Childress and one part-time employee, were called to speak before the commissioners and Thibodeaux during their June 7 meeting concerning the allegation, and all will be on paid leave for the duration of the investigation. In addition to the elected officials representing commissioners court and veterans service employees, county attorney Doug Manning was in attendance. No other individual was allowed in the closed-door session.
“Nobody has been fired; nobody has been suspended or punished,” Thibodeaux said. “Right now, we have an investigation we need to do. It’s not something we take very lightly, either.”
The county veterans office Web page lists its functions as including interviewing and advising clients on veterans or surviving spouse entitlements, assisting veterans or surviving spouses in filing claims, filing Notice of Disagreements with the VA Regional Office if a veteran believes the decision made by the VA was incorrect, and assisting in varying forms of paperwork needed for veterans and their spouses to receive benefits they are entitled to. Although an exact number of clients was not available as of press time, Thibodeaux said the number of veterans assisted by the agency was plentiful.
“We know there are a lot of people in the county using this service, and it’s one we hope to continue to provide,” Thibodeaux said. “Right now I would only be speculating as to what is going to happen with the department,” he said, as to the future of veterans services in Orange County. “Right now, we just don’t know if changes need to be made. If they do, we plan to make them, and then move on.”