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Vet’s call for medical appointment prompts visit by armed agents

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Published:   |   Updated: June 30, 2014 at 10:14 PM

Like a lot of veterans, Michael Henry says he has been waiting a long time for help from the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center in Pinellas County.

But unlike most, Henry, a medically discharged Army staff sergeant, had armed agents from the Department of Veteran Affairs’ Office of Inspector General show up at his house in St. Petersburg last week.

He said they wanted to know if he had threatened Young center director Suzanne M. Klinker about 90 minutes earlier. The agents, he said, were antagonistic and told him that they would find a way to charge him and that they would “slow-walk” any VA claims he had pending or in the future.

Jim O’Neill, assistant inspector general for investigations, confirmed agents visited Henry because of his interactions with one or more VA employees, but denied the agents were antagonistic. Agent Sean Keen was merely telling Henry that the federal prosecutors had to make the final determination on any charges, said O’Neill. Keen’s statement about “slow-walking” claims was “well-intentioned but inaccurate advice and not meant to be a threat,” said O’Neill.

Late Monday afternoon, the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to prosecute Henry, said O’Neill. A spokesman for that office could not confirm that late Monday afternoon.

VA OIG special agent Amy Trebino said the investigation was launched because Henry threatened the VA over the phone, telling an employee with the agency “that he knew where Director Suzanne Klinker lived, gave her address, and also said the name of her son who lives at the residence,” according to a St. Petersburg police report. “Trebino says this threat has special concern because Henry has been arrested for stalking and violating his probation in another state.”

When asked about his statements, Henry told the agents “that he did not remember saying those things to someone on the phone and that he was on medication,” according to the report.

In a phone interview Monday, Henry, 53, denied saying he knew where Klinker lives and said he didn’t even know she had a son. He said the arrest mentioned in the police report stemmed from a 2006 incident in Tennessee involving his ex-wife. The two, he said, had reciprocal restraining orders. That information could not immediately be confirmed.

Henry said he was in bed when the police and agents arrived at his house shortly after 6 p.m. Friday.

“I heard a banging on my the door,” he said. “They were just about knocking the door down.”

Henry said he has nerve damage in his right leg and a neck problem and had trouble getting out of bed. He said two federal agents were accompanied by two St. Petersburg police officers and that one of the police officers brushed his mother-in-law aside after opening the door.

The report states that police and agents “were allowed in by the subject’s mother.”

Henry said the agents and police then went to his daughter-in-law’s room, were told that he was on the other side of the house, where they eventually found him.

“There was a lot of screaming,” he said. “They were screaming at me, trying to antagonize me to get angry.”

Henry said that he videotaped the entire episode, which lasted a little more than an hour, but was told to erase the recording by the agents.

O’Neill said the agents knew they were being recorded and when they were finished talking to Henry, they asked him to erase the recording because they sometimes have to go undercover.

“They didn’t want it on YouTube,” said O’Neill. “They said that could potentially be a problem. He complied.”

O’Neill would not comment about the information in the police report, saying only that the agents were “acting in response to interactions between the veteran and one or more VA employees.”

The incident was sparked, said Henry, by a phone call he made about 90 minutes earlier to the VA crisis hotline, which then dialed in a Young center patient advocate for a three-way conversation.

Henry said he had been seeking a consult for his neck problems for eight months with no luck. He said he began calling the hospital on a daily basis about two weeks ago.

During the three-way conversation, Henry said he was told by the advocate that he would have to wait for an appointment. Henry said he responded by asking if Klinker could meet him, either for breakfast, lunch, dinner or at her home.

Young center spokesman Jason Dangel confirmed that Henry is a patient but could not immediately confirm what treatment he was seeking or his interactions with hospital staff.

“Our leadership team maintains an open door policy with both veterans and employees regarding concerns,” he said in an email, adding that veterans “frequently meet with our leadership team” including the director.

Referring questions about what happened at Henry’s home to the Office of Inspector General, Dangel said that “as the fourth busiest VA health care system in the country, it is extremely important that we provide adequate security resources and reporting mechanisms to safeguard our employee population.”

Though unusual, such encounters are not unprecedented.

O’Neill said that there has been a nearly five-fold increase in the number of threat investigations over the past seven years, from 132 in the fiscal year ending in September, 2007 to 592 in the fiscal year ending last September.

In about 90 percent of those cases, there were no charges, O’Neill said.

The reason for the large increase in threat investigations has far more to do with the greater awareness VA employees have that such services are available than a reaction to the current controversies over wait times resulting in patient deaths and backlogs in benefits ratings, O’Neil said.

At any given time there are about 160 special agents from his office in the field, said O’Neill, who declined to say how many are in this region.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7629

@haltman

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