Scandals and bribery: The VA’s interesting and dramatic beginnings

vetaffairs Scandals and bribery: The VAs interesting and dramatic beginnings

The US Department of Veterans Affairs. (Photo by PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Kaupanger

Hundreds of thousands of veterans denied disability claims.

Millions and millions of dollars’ worth in kickbacks from government contractors. 

Hospital supplies meant for veterans sold to private firms. 

Adulterous affairs, bribes and the U.S. president choking out the “playboy” director of the Veterans’ Bureau like “a dog would a rat.”

Happy Anniversary Department of Veterans Affairs!

On July 21, the VA celebrates another year of existence. Technically, the VA was formed in 1930, but you can trace the idea back to 1776 when the Continental Congress encouraged enlistments by providing pensions for soldiers who were disabled. 

Back then, states and communities gave veterans medical and hospital care. The VA’s official predecessor was created when Congress passed the Sweet Act of 1921.

Charles Robert Forbes was officially appointed as director of the newly created Veterans’ Bureau by President Warren G. Harding on August 9, 1921. He served for a little less than two years, but managed to accomplish quite a lot — sadly, not in a good way.

Forbes, born in Scotland, immigrated to the U.S. with his parents as a child. In 1894, when he was 16, joined the Marines as a musician and eventually was trained as an engineer. Then in 1900 he joined the Army, but two months later was charged with desertion.  Restored to duty without a trial, Forbes was honorably discharged in 1908 with the rank of sergeant first class.

Settling down in the Pacific Northwest, Forbes married and started work in the construction industry, eventually moving to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. While there, Forbes served in four federal government appointments including appointments from President Woodrow Wilson. This is where he met Harding while the then-Senator was on vacation with his wife.

Enlisting in the Army again during World War I, Forbes received the international Croix de Guerre medal and the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal. Reaching the rank of lieutenant colonel, Forbes left the Army after the war and headed back to Washington State and a life in construction.

When Forbes’s friend Harding became president, he really wanted to become the chairman of the United States Shipping Board, but was appointed to the Bureau of War Risk Insurance.

Four months later, he was given the newly created Veterans’ Bureau.

After WWI, wounded and disabled veterans didn’t have decent facilities for proper care and also needed job skills. At the time, there were 14 regional offices created and run semi-independently from the D.C.-based Veterans’ Bureau.  Congress dumped millions and millions of dollars into the newly formed office to care for the needs of the desperate veterans.

And here’s where the fun began.

Forbes hired 30,000 new workers to run the Bureau, many were personal friends of his. The Veterans’ Bureau was so overstaffed, many people couldn’t justify their paid positions. Forbes blatantly ignored the needs of the veterans and embezzled about $2 million from the government mainly in connections with building veterans’ hospitals, selling supplies and kickbacks from contractors.

The budget for the Veterans’ Bureau at this time was about $1.3 billion. Approximately 300,000 soldiers were wounded in combat, yet only 47,000 claims for disability insurance were allowed.  Even fewer vets received any vocational training.  Later it would be found that more than 200,000 pieces of mail from veterans requesting help were left unopened.

Forbes, by all accounts, had a ball touring veterans’ hospital construction sites. He would take “joy rides” with friends and contractors that included drinking and parties. He developed a special secret code to use with contractors to help with insider information regarding governmental contracts. 

On a “joy ride” to Chicago, Forbes met two contractors, J.W. Thompson and E.H. Mortimer, who wanted to secure a $17 million contract. They did this by giving Forbes a $5,000 bribe.

When Forbes returned from his “inspection tour,” he started making better money by selling hospital supplies meant for veterans at discounted prices. In one deal, he sold close to $7 million worth of hospital supplies for only $600,000.  Harding, not a stranger to scandal himself, found out and ordered Forbes to stop.  Forbes disobeyed and kept selling supplies.

Harding summoned Forbes to the White House in January of 1923 when he found out Forbes disobeyed his direct order.  Forbes begged the president to let him go to Europe so he could deal with a few family matters. The president said he could, but only if he would resign while out of the country.

On Feb. 15, 1923, Forbes resigned. Congress started an investigation into the Veterans’ Bureau on March 2.  The investigation got a boost when a Elias H. Mortimer decided to testify against Forbes.  Mortimer gave Forbes a bribe in Chicago and decided to testify to this fact when Forbes took Mortimer’s wife to Europe with him. (Mrs. Forbes was (ahem) not along for the trip, if you get the insinuation)

On his return from Europe, Forbes decided to visit the White House. The president was so angry he grabbed Forbes by the throat and began shaking him violently, “as a dog would a rat.” A guest who arrived for a previously scheduled appointment interrupted the president and saved Forbes.

Forbes was indicted and tried in 1924. Convicted of conspiracy to defraud the government, he was fined $10,000 and sentenced to two years in prison.  He served one year, eight months and six days at the Leavenworth federal penitentiary.

The first director of the Veterans’ Bureau died at the Walter Reed Hospital in D.C on April 10, 1952. He was 74 years old.  Forbes is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Gone, but not forgotten – at least not by us today.

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