WASHINGTON (CN) — A man once dubbed “Dr. Orange” for his Vietnam War-era scientific research into the herbicide Agent Orange is the focus of a federal complaint seeking records from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
News organization ProPublica brought the lawsuit on Dec. 16 in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, saying the VA has stonewalled a request it filed under the Freedom of Information Act earlier this year.
As part of its investigative reporting on Agent Orange and its effects on veterans, ProPublica wants access to nearly five years of communications between the VA and a consultant named Alvin Young.
ProPublica reported this past October that Young, “more than anyone else, has guided the stance of the military and U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on Agent Orange and whether it has harmed service members.”
Saying the 74-year-old scientist “might be characterized as a naysayer” when it comes to recognizing the link between certain diseases and herbicides used in Vietnam, ProPublica notes that Young advised the VA in 2013, for example, that “our troops were never at a significant risk for exposure to Agent Orange.”
Young, who earned the nickname Dr. Orange for his work on the toxic herbicide, has been paid millions of dollars to consult with the VA, according to the complaint.
ProPublica’s October article on the doctor, co-published with the Virginia Pilot, notes that the VA has repeatedly cited Young’s work over the years “to deny disability compensation to vets, saving the government millions of dollars.”
ProPublica says it filed its FOIA request concerning Young with the VA on May 31.
It wants access to all correspondence Young exchanged with 14 VA officials between Jan. 1, 2012, and the present.
To date, neither the Veterans Benefits Administration nor the Veterans Health Administration have produced any records in response to the FOIA request.
Accusing the VA of having “stonewalled,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning news outlet wants an injunction and copies of the records it seeks.
Thousands of soldiers were exposed to Agent Orange when the U.S. military used it extensively as a defoliant to clear heavily forested areas during the Vietnam War.
The VA’s website notes that veterans exposed to Agent Orange have suffered increased rates of at least 14 diseases including acute leukemia, Hodgkin’s lymphoma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, throat cancer, prostate cancer, lung cancer, colon cancer, Ischemic heart disease, soft tissue sarcoma and liver cancer.
In the years following the Vietnam War the problems associated with Agent Orange were so prevalent that Congress eventually passed the Agent Orange Act of 1991, which created a presumption that veterans who served between 1962 and 1975 were exposed. If these veterans develop diseases linked to exposure to the chemical, that presumption allows them to receive disability compensation without proving herbicide exposure.
“Only through transparency can the public have confidence in the VA’s commitment ‘[t]o care for him who shall have borne the battle,’” ProPublica’s complaint states. “The VA’s integrity is called into question when it refuses to divulge the extent of its reliance upon a single individual — Young — whose research and conclusions concerning the long term health effects of Agent Orange and other herbicides on Vietnam veterans seemingly have had a profound impact on VA policy and regulations.
VA spokesman Randal Noller noted that the agency “strives to process FOIAs on a first-in, first-out basis. “
“Generally, requests are placed on one of two tracks: simple or complex,” Noller said in an email. “Complex requests, by definition are more laborious and may require more time to process. To date the government has not been served with the subject litigation. When and if we are served, we will work with the Department of Justice to respond.”
ProPublica has not returned a request for comment emailed to its editor in chief, Steve Engelberg. The organization is represented by Seth Watkins, an attorney with Adduci, Mastriani & Schaumberg.