02/13/2012 03:48 EST | Updated 04/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Vets board members ruling in favour of soldiers often derided as Santa Claus

OTTAWA - They were called Santa Claus, often behind their backs.

Adjudicators at the Veterans Review and Appeal Board who sided too frequently with ex-soldiers got the dismissive moniker from some of their peers, according to a long-standing member who has broken his silence.

The slight was made possible by a subtle, but profound, change to the way the agency — now at the heart of another veterans' privacy scandal — began dissecting its decisions shortly after the Conservatives came to power.

The agency posts its overall favourability rating online, showing the percentage of times the independent board rules in favour of veterans who have appealed their benefit rulings by federal bureaucrats.

But in 2007, in addition to tracking favourable decisions by region, the board began measuring the number of times panel members were involved in decisions that came down on the side of former soldiers and RCMP members, according to PowerPoint presentations obtained by The Canadian Press.

Cases are heard by two-member review panels and appeals by three members. If one adjudicator rules in favour, the decision is a win for the veteran, regardless of what other members say.

The slicing and dicing of those statistics had far-reaching implications and is one of the tools board chairman John Larlee and his deputy used to lean on members perceived as overly-generous, says long-standing member Harold Leduc.

He has been embroiled in a long-running dispute with the board, including allegations of two privacy breaches.

"We sure felt the pressure. I know I felt it," Leduc said in an interview. "I'm not sure what board staff was saying behind my back, but I know with other members they'd call them Santa Claus because they're giving too much away."

He said board members were warned in 2008, prior to the arrival of John Larlee as the new chairman, that if their favourability rating for decisions was too high they would be called on the carpet.

The September 2009 series of charts, obtained by The Canadian Press, provide a snapshot of the system and showed the average favourability rating at the time was 58.9 per cent.

According to the graph, over half the 21 members were part of panels that exceed that benchmark — some by as much as 29 per cent.

Other documents demonstrated how the board had been more frugal in previous years. For instance in March 2001, only 44.2 per cent of veterans appeals were being allowed.

The favourability numbers began a slow, steady march upwards starting in March 2003 and peaked at a high of 65.4 per cent of decisions in June 2009, at which point they began to decline, according to the presentation.

Leduc said the favourability yardstick was the tool used to rein in the board and the cash going out the door.

The issue was one of the last, behind-the-scenes battles fought by former veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran before he ended his tenure in the fall of 2010.

Half a dozen adjudicators had come to Stogran confidentially complaining about the pressure to deny claims and he met with the review board chairman and senior staff.

"I asked them what they used (the individual ratings) for and they said quality control," Stogran said about the September 2010 meeting. "It's scandalous. They're knowingly doing it and I challenged them on it. The review and appeal process was never intended to be a kangaroo court."

The former battle group commander and Afghanistan veteran, who only weeks before the meeting accused Veterans Affairs Canada of "nickel and diming" soldiers, confronted the officials with not only the claims, but copies of the internal statistics.

A spokeswoman for the board, Danielle Gauthier, denied the favourability rating was used as a stick to intimidate adjudicators. He said members themselves requested the numbers be parsed that way.

"I want to assure you that all board members look for every opportunity to rule in favour of the veteran based on the available evidence and the legislation," Gauthier wrote in an email response to questions posed by The Canadian Press.

"Board members themselves asked to receive the information about their favourability rates. Members were given the overall favourability rates for review and appeal decisions, and it was in this context that they requested the additional information. These rates are provided as information only and are not used as a measure of individual performance."

But a leading veterans organization says the agency should be disbanded.

Canadian Veterans Advocacy said Harold Leduc was originally named to the board in 2005 in order to get a veteran's perspective into the organization, which has often had a bad reputation among soldiers.

"I think more than a judicial review is required. I think this abomination should be dismissed at once," said Mike Blais, the executive director of the advocacy group.

He says the idea that Leduc was targeted because he often sided with veterans in review decisions brings into question the integrity of the entire board.

Leduc claims that his privacy, including personal medical information, was breached and used to smear and discredit his work on the board.

In an interview, Leduc said the country's privacy watchdog had told him that it was unable to investigate the initial leak of his personal information.

The assistant privacy commissioner, Chantel Bernier, provided clarification Monday.

While for privacy reasons she would not address Leduc's specific case, Bernier said the concerns of a number of individuals had been brought to their attention and that they would addressed through the commissioner's full-scale audit of Veterans Affairs.

Both the Liberals and NDP say the Harper government should heed Leduc's advice and call a judicial inquiry into the review board.

New Democrat veterans critic Peter Stoffer says the Conservatives have promised to either overhaul or abolish the board and it's about time they lived up to their pledge.

MP Sean Casey, the Liberal veterans critic, said he'll try to revive a call for a public hearing on privacy before the House of Commons veterans committee.