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Andy Marso: Veteran died after confrontation at Kansas City VA hospital. Senators demand answers
Kansas City Star - 12/11/2018
Dec. 11--Two U.S. senators are seeking answers about the death of a veteran following an altercation at the Kansas City VA Medical Center. VA officials have declined for months to provide information to The Star.
Dale Farhner of Kingston, Mo., died in May, and since then The Star has sought details about what happened. ButVA officials have withheld information, saying the matter remains under review.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican, sent a joint letter to U.S.Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie last week, asking for answers.
"We certainly appreciate the requirements of an investigation, but hope that after over six months some initial information can be forthcoming," the letter reads. "The health and well-being of our veterans have been among our highest shared priorities in Congress. Please release any information that can be made public regarding Mr. Farhner, and if not, please explain the reasons why."
The Star received an anonymous tip that on May 10 Farhner had a confrontation with VA police outside the entrance to the medical center's emergency department, at 4801 Linwood Blvd. The tipster said Farhner was comatose following the confrontation and was taken to the University of Kansas Hospital, where he was diagnosed with a brain hemorrhage.
The tipster said Farhner died May 12 at KU Hospital. That much is confirmed by online obituaries, which said he was 66 and from Kingston. Efforts to reach his next-of-kin, as identified by his funeral home, were not successful.
The Star sought comment in May from Dwayne Rider, who was then the spokesman for the Kansas City VA Medical Center.
Rider responded via email on May 31, saying "due to privacy restrictions, we cannot release additional information at this time."
The Star filed a formal request under the Freedom of Information Act that same day.
The VA responded on July 7 with an emailed letter saying it had identified "nine documents totaling 18 pages of written records, and one video, and one audio recording" relevant to the request.
But VA records manager Laura Hughes wrote that she was withholding all of it "based on the open/pending status of the Veterans Health Administration Office of Security & Law Enforcement review."
"Due to the open/pending status the documents are pre-decisional to VHA's findings and decision regarding this incident," Hughes said. "Based upon the information available to me I believe release of the records could potentially impair the deliberative process as release of the pre-decisional document to the public would likely negatively impact a frank discussion on matters of policy between subordinates and supervisors."
The Star lodged a formal appeal of that decision on July 20.
As of Monday, the VA's appeals office had provided no response. Tracy Knight, an information specialist in the Washington, D.C., office of the VA's general legal counsel, said she could give no time line for a decision.
"The attorney who's working it has been in contact with his deputy and they've got to go back and forth and do some additional work," Knight said.
On Monday, Kansas City VA staff once again rebuffed requests for comment on Farhner's death.
The Jackson County Medical Examiner's office performed Fahrner's autopsy, but Marshanna Hester, a spokeswoman for the office, said no information could be released because the case is still open.
"All documents prepared by and in the custody of the Jackson County Medical Examiner's Office relating to this matter are investigative reports of a law enforcement agency and are thus closed records until the investigation becomes inactive," Hester said Friday via email.
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