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Woman Jailed in Veterans’ Forgery Case

<i> From the Washington Post</i>

U.S. District Judge James Robertson sentenced Jill L. Rygwalski, a former attorney for the Board of Veterans Appeals, to 15 months in prison Friday for tampering with veterans’ files.

The case involved destroying irreplaceable medical records and forging other documents and may have led to such lengthy delays that some veterans might have died before learning whether they would have received benefits.

Rygwalski, 33, of Lake Ridge, Va., pleaded guilty in June to destroying government documents while she was an attorney who processed medical and benefits claims for veterans from August, 1990, to February, 1994. As part of a plea bargain, she will make $22,461 in restitution to the government.

Charles L. Cragin, chairman of the Board of Veterans Affairs, said Rygwalski “put veterans last” in an effort to avoid having to make decisions on the veterans’ requests for benefits. By plucking out original documents and forging others, she sent cases back to local veterans offices, sending officials there and the veterans on searches for the records she had destroyed.

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In imposing the sentence--the same as another board attorney received last year for similar criminal conduct--the judge pointedly drew a contrast to her behavior, noting that neither he nor his staff tampered with her file in preparing for the hearing. “We didn’t change anything. We didn’t throw anything out. We didn’t alter anything,” he said.

The full impact of her actions will not be known for some time, as officials are continuing to examine the cases she handled for nearly 1,100 veterans. Of them, 77 veterans died after Rygwalski had sent their cases back to local veterans offices for more work. Board officials still have to determine whether she tampered with any of those cases.

During a sentencing hearing earlier in the week, defense witnesses testified that Rygwalski suffered from a personality disorder. According to court records, she claims she was mentally abused by her parents, particularly her father, who forced her to become a lawyer rather than a veterinarian. There also were allegations that she was the victim of physical abuse by her husband and sexual harassment by a supervisor at work.

Robertson told Rygwalski that it was “nice” for her to apologize to him. “But the correct [apology] was to the veterans, to the VA and to your colleagues,” he said. She tearfully did that, saying she accepted full responsibility.

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