Bush Appointee Campaigns for Evangelicals

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Inter Press Service

Bush Appointee Campaigns for Evangelicals

The head of the U.S. federal government agency that doles out benefits to disabled veterans is under fire for saying Bible study is "more important than doing [my] job."

by
Aaron Glantz

SAN FRANCISCO - Two organisations, Veterans for Common Sense (VCS) and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF), demanded an investigation Tuesday of Daniel Cooper, President George W. Bush's undersecretary for benefits at the Department of Veterans Affairs.Their complaint stems from an appearance Cooper made in a fundraising video for the evangelical group Christian Embassy, which carries out missionary work among the Washington elite as part of the Campus Crusade for Christ.

In the video, Cooper says of his Bible study, "it's not really about carving out time, it really is a matter of saying what is important. And since that's more important than doing the job -- the job's going to be there, whether I'm there or not."

Veterans for Common Sense and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation believe Cooper violated the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits government officials from advocating a particular religion while on the job.

They also believe Cooper violated ethics rules that prohibit government officials from using their name, picture, or title for proselytising or fundraising.

"We're very concerned about this because hundreds of thousands of veterans are waiting for their benefits while Cooper himself says that promoting his religion is more important than helping the veterans," Veterans for Common Sense's Paul Sullivan told IPS.

Since Cooper was appointed the head of the Veterans Benefits Administration, the number of veterans waiting on their disability claims has increased dramatically, from 325,000 in 2002 to 600,000 today.

On average, a U.S. war veteran must wait six months for an answer to their application. If a vet decides to appeal a denial, the process often drags on as long as three years.

In addition, Veterans Administration hospitals, clinics and counseling centres report that more than 52,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But under Cooper's leadership, only 19,000 of those veterans were approved for service-connected disability compensation for PTSD, a significant discrepancy.

The groups are also upset that Cooper gave his top aid, Ronald Aument, the deputy secretary for benefits, a 33,000-dollar cash bonus while the claims backlog grew larger.

"He's prostituting his position," argued Mikey Weinstein, the head of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. "We could have done just as poorly as he's done by sticking a German Shepard or a cactus in that job."

Sullivan and Weinstein turned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation after the Veterans Administration's own inspector general cleared Cooper of any wrongdoing.

"We made a referral to the designated agency ethics official," said Cathy Gromek, a spokeswoman for the VA inspector general's office. "He reviewed the video, and he determined that conduct portrayed in the video did not violate federal laws or regulations."

When asked to provide a copy of the inspector's report, Gromek told IPS it was not readily available. A request would need to be made under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), she said -- a bureaucratic process that often takes weeks, or even months. Veterans for Common Sense has already filed a formal request for the report, but whatever it shows, the organisation's director Paul Sullivan told IPS the FBI still needs to get involved.

"It's like the fox guarding the henhouse," Sullivan said. "VA's Inspector General, who is a political appointee, should not be investigating other political appointees within his own department."

Daniel Cooper wasn't the only high ranking official in the Christian Embassy video. The video also featured Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Stephen Johnson and a slew of current and retired Pentagon officials, including Army brigadier generals Vincent Brooks and Robert Caslen, retired Army Chaplain Col. Ralph Benson, and Air Force major generals Peter Sutton and John Catton.

Long time observers of the religious right say the controversy surrounding Daniel Cooper is part of a pattern.

"Evangelicals have been working through the military and government agencies since the Cold War as part of the fight against 'Godless Communism', but they tried to follow certain boundaries" said Chip Berlet, a senior analyst of Political Research Associates in Boston. "With the Bush administration we've seen many egregious examples of officials stepping way out of line of any kind of boundary, of which this promotional video is a particularly notable example."

In 2005, for example, the group Americans United for the Separation of Church and State issued a report accusing officials at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs of religious discrimination.

Cadets were frequently pressured to attend chapel and take part of evangelical services, the group said, with prayer part of mandatory events at the academy. In at least one case, the group said, a teacher ordered students to pray before beginning their final examination.

© 2007 Inter Press Service

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