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VA apologizes for investigating nurse on 'sedition'

April 18, 2006
Associated Press

ALBUQUERQUE - The Veterans Affairs secretary has acknowledged his agency was wrong to investigate a nurse at the Albuquerque VA hospital on an accusation of sedition.

A letter dated March 14 from VA Secretary R. James Nicholson to Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., was made public this week by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico.

In February, Bingaman asked Nicholson for a thorough inquiry into his agency's investigation of whether a letter that nurse Laura Berg wrote to a newspaper criticizing the Bush administration amounted to "sedition."

Such investigations raise "a very real possibility of chilling legitimate political speech," Bingaman said.

Nicholson told Bingaman that Berg's letter "did not amount to sedition. ... The use of the word 'sedition' was not appropriate."

The VA's human resources office earlier cleared her of any wrongdoing, but Bingaman said he was concerned that there was an investigation in the first place.

Mel Hooker, VA human resources chief in Albuquerque, said in a Nov. 9 letter about the probe that the agency was obligated to investigate "any act which potentially represents sedition."

Albuquerque VA Director Mary Dowling privately apologized to Berg in mid-February, about a week after Nicholson received Bingaman's letter. But Berg said she wanted a more public apology to counter any chilling effect from the probe.

"My concern about just having a private apology is because this happened to me it has frightened other people. It was intimidating," she said. "I appreciate having a personal apology saying, `Yes, it was an overreaction,' but my concern is for the wider environment."

Berg's letter, published last September in an alternative Albuquerque newspaper, criticized the administration's actions in Iraq and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Berg, who identified herself in the letter as a VA nurse but signed it as a private citizen, wrote that she was "furious with the tragically misplaced priorities and criminal negligence of this government."

She said her work computer was confiscated within weeks of her letter being published.

The ACLU had asked the VA to apologize in January, saying the agency had no reason to suspect Berg used government resources to write the letter.

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