State

Jardine: Wait, someone's having trouble giving the government money?

This is one of those head-scratchers involving government bureaucracy:

In 2006, when Carlene Kester applied to receive veterans' benefits as a widow, it took her eight months of perseverance and a call to her congressman to get her first check.

The Modesto resident's late husband, Francis Kester, spent 26 years in the Navy and later worked as a mechanic. He died seven years ago.

In May, Carlene turned 62 and qualified for her late husband's Social Security benefits, which are substantially higher than the monthly checks she received from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

She can't receive both, so she had to choose one, and Social Security was a no-brainer.

There's just one problem: Kester can't seem to find anyone at the VA who will stop the agency from sending the widow's benefit checks. Nor can she find anyone who will take back the checks she's received since calling to stop them more than seven months ago.

Now, just as she did in getting the benefits, she's hoping an act of Congress — or at least action from someone on Rep. George Radanovich's staff — will put an end to the folly.

No luck so far.

Kester's ordeal by red tape began in April, when she applied for the Social Security benefits. She immediately contacted VA officials at the benefits center in St. Paul, Minn., to stop the VA's checks.

"They said as soon as I knew when I'd get my first (SSI) check, to call back."

She did, the day Social Security told her to expect the first one in May.

The VA representative told her that agency would stop sending its checks.

"They made it effective June 1," she said. "Yet the checks kept a-comin'. I called them again. They said, 'We received your call.' That's all they said."

July, August, September, October. More checks. November and December, too.

By that time, she'd contacted Radanovich's office, and the congressman's staff made some calls on her behalf. When his field representative received a letter dated Dec. 11, it merely explained that the VA's pension office is in Minnesota, which she, and presumably they, knew. The letter also gave an 800 number for her to call, just in case she had any questions.

Six days later, Kester received a letter from the benefits center in St. Paul.

It began:

"We have received your application for benefits. It is our desire to decide your case promptly. However, as we have a great number of claims, action on your may be delayed. ... "

The wording seemed all too familiar, she thought. So she checked through her old paperwork.

"It was the exact same letter I received when I first applied for the widows' benefit in 2006," she said.

Except this time she didn't apply to receive benefits. She's trying to give them back.

Someone at the VA told her to simply return the VA checks — which she's never cashed — by mail, she said. No chance, she said, not seven checks totaling more than $4,600.

"I'm not mailing them back to you so can lose them," she said she told the VA representative. " 'You figure out a way to send them back registered (with a specific person to send them to).' I guess I could go to Radanovich's office and have them take 'em."

I called the St. Paul VA office in hopes of finding someone who can explain how you can give money to the government by means other than the Internal Revenue Service. A friendly clerk spent minutes trying to find someone I could talk to, and I enjoyed several Nat King Cole songs while I was on hold.

Finally, she came back on the line and gave me a number where I could fax in a request for a return call. It didn't come.

This episode would be sort of funny, Kester said, if she didn't see so many who could really use the money.

"There are so many homeless veterans out there, and I'm sitting on these checks," she said. "I told the guy at Radanovich's office I should just cash them and hand out the money (to homeless vets). He said, 'No, don't do that!' And we've donated clothing for veterans. My daughter suggested we put the check there, too."

And if she did?

"They'd be all over me like fleas on a dog," Kester said. "I'm trying to do something right, here. This is ridiculous. All it takes is a simple little press of a button to fix this thing."

Or getting to someone who knows which button to press.

Ultimately, Kester decided to see if she could push a few buttons among the bureaucrats by bringing her story to light.

"People need to hear this," she said.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at 578-2383 or jjardine@modbee.com

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