War hero canned due to politics?
Budget cuts cited by state in firing
of Medal of Honor recipient
Posted: May 5, 2003
1:00 a.m. Eastern
By Jon Dougherty
© 2003 WorldNetDaily.com
Hal served with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment.
In every sense of the word, retired Lt. Col. Harold A. Fritz is a hero.
As a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army in Vietnam in January 1969, Fritz was commanding a small reconnaissance convoy that was ambushed by a company of North Vietnamese troops. With most of his vehicles aflame, both of his command tracks and their radios knocked out, and 23 of his 28 men dead or wounded, Fritz led his four remaining troops against some 200-odd enemy combatants. They slugged it out for nearly six hours before an Army tank company managed to receive a faint hand-held radio call for help from the beleaguered force and respond to drive off the enemy.
When the battle was over, Fritz' contingent was battered but intact; the North Vietnamese, meanwhile, had lost 170 men, and more than 20 were captured. In the process, Fritz and his men were able to save a follow-on supply convoy that was transporting, among other things, thousands of gallons of highly combustible aviation fuel. Had that convoy been struck by the North Vietnamese, American casualties would have been horrific.
Before leaving Vietnam, Fritz would be wounded twice in combat and earn a Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster to go along with a Silver Star and numerous other commendations.
He retired a lieutenant colonel after 27 years in the Army, then brought his heroic performance with him to his home state of Illinois, where he served since 1995 as a deputy director of the state's Department of Veterans' Affairs. According to insiders, former and current employees, during his eight-year tenure Fritz managed to clean up much corruption within the agency and improved its ability to perform its function - assisting veterans. Among other accomplishments, he created and planned the annual American Ex-Prisoners of War Recognition Day, which is held every April in Springfield.
But while the days of heated combat in the dank, sweltering jungles of Vietnam are long over, these days Fritz is still fighting, though a much different kind of battle with a highly elusive and crafty enemy. It is one few people ever win, even heroes with the nation's highest military honor.
It's a battle against bureaucracy and other entrenched powerful political machinations. That's how Fritz and many of his comrades see it.
For much of his tenure at Veterans' Affairs, Fritz worked for John Johnston, a former VA director. But early on, he said, friction developed between them to the point that, in 1999, Johnston even went to state police officials claiming Fritz was trying to assassinate him. The charges were never substantiated, and Fritz initiated a lawsuit against Johnston over the allegations, though an appeals court dismissed his suit last week. (He says he's planning an appeal to the state Supreme Court.)
Despite the legal battles and other problems between them, however, Fritz says he always maintained a public image of professionalism, deferring to Johnston as director of the agency and continuing to work hard to fulfill his duties to his veteran charges. His co-workers and others who have had dealings with him confirm that.
Finally, Johnston was replaced by Roy L. Dolgos, who was hired in March. The new director pumped Fritz for status reports on the agency and relied on him to bring him up to date on problems and issues that needed to be addressed.
The retired colonel said he told Dolgos of lingering issues of past corruption when Johnston was still director. Fritz also talked of discriminatory practices - the hiring of non-veterans as well as outright racial discrimination - within the agency under Johnston, and "bid-rigging" at the Anna, Ill., veterans' home, in which Johnston allegedly gave contracts for work there to political allies and friends. And, charges the Peoria, Ill., native, some former soldiers who were residents at the state's veterans' homes were cremated and their ashes placed in ammunition cans for burial.
"This was all going on with taxpayers' money," Fritz told WorldNetDaily in a wide-ranging interview.
Just when he thought things would finally settle down for him at the office, Dolgos called him in April 15 and dropped a bomb on him.
"He said, 'You're fired, I have to let you go,'" said Fritz. "Dolgos told me it was due to budget cuts." The Medal of Honor recipient, however, believes the firing was political.
Fritz says Dolgos fired him in an effort to cut back on staff and save the department money, even though other senior-level employees with fewer responsibilities making more money have been retained. Also, Fritz says Dolgos told him the decision to let him go "came from the governor's office." Finally, Fritz says he worked four years under Johnston without a pay raise - though other managers received annual increases - "as retaliation," he said.
That the governor's office would be involved is possible, say some analysts. After all, they maintain, Fritz was hired during a Republican governor's tenure - Jim Edgar - and served another Republican, George Ryan. The new governor of Illinois is Democrat Rod Blagojevich.
"I'm sorry to see a Medal of Honor winner just get cut out like that," Terry Woodburn, adjutant for the American Legion State Headquarters in Bloomington, told the Copley News Service. "It's a political job, and unfortunately sometimes that comes with the job."
VA officials maintained his firing was due to fiscal constraints.
Fritz's firing "was a necessary cut due to our budget. We're having a reduction in our administration," Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Tisdale said. She said she couldn't comment on employees' pay scales and had "no information" on the caliber of employee Fritz was, but she added that another deputy director, Dan Boatwright, also was let go "because of budget concerns."
With a state deficit estimated at $5 billion for this year and next, Blagojevich has ordered state agencies to cut overhead by 10 percent, officials said.
"Like Illinois, many states face large budget deficits. Many of those states have resorted to the traditional methods of solving fiscal crises: raising taxes or slashing spending in areas that matter most like education, health care and public safety. I refuse to submit to those tired, old solutions," Blagojevich wrote in an April 27 letter posted on the governor's website, urging residents to pressure lawmakers into approving his budget. "Asking the taxpayers to bear the burden of years of mismanagement and waste is simply unfair. … Instead, our budget cuts over $1.3 billion in waste and inefficiency. …"
Fritz says he's all for curbing waste and inefficiency. Indeed, he says that's what he was doing as the state's deputy director for the VA.
Meanwhile, current employees of the department backed many of Fritz's charges. They also said Johnston handed out contracts at the agency's Anna, Ill., veterans' home to former Gov. Ryan's friends. Further, they corroborated Fritz's allegations that non-veterans have been hired in management positions, and that some harassment and discrimination claims have occurred.
An internal audit of the department by Donald Bullerman, chief auditor for the Illinois Auditor General's office, found the evidence of veterans being buried in ammunition cans. Fritz says the auditor told Johnston about it, but the VA director did nothing about it.
One senior department official who asked not to be identified and who worked with Fritz directly said employees in the Chicago office had filed complaints of sexual harassment and racial discrimination. One female employee, the senior official said, also claimed retaliation by senior managers after she made her complaints.
The same official also confirmed Fritz's charges that a number of non-veterans had been hired by Johnston, even though the agency is supposed to give preference in hiring to veterans.
"I'm thinking some of the non-veterans that were hired were friends of [Johnston]," said the source, who complimented Fritz: "He was a good man who did everything he was asked to do and more."
Tisdale told WorldNetDaily some medical-related "critical direct care" positions had been filled by non-veterans in some of the state's veterans' homes, but she denied any non-veterans had been hired to fill office and managerial positions.
Another current senior agency official, who requested anonymity, said Johnston "and the governor's office [under Ryan] worked out a contract with a company, the Tutera Group," of Kansas City, Mo. One of the players involved in that contract, the official said, was Donald Udstuen, once part of Ryan's "kitchen cabinet" of close advisers, who was arraigned in May 2002 on a host of charges involving racketeering, kickbacks and money laundering.
In separate indictments, federal authorities charged Lawrence Warner with rigging bids and accepting kickbacks for secretary of state contracts - while Ryan was holding that office - for such goods and services as vehicle registration validation stickers, computer systems and building leases.
Warner, a friend of Ryan's, held no position in the government but, records say, from 1991 to 1999 he attended office meetings and directed secretary of state personnel regarding agency operations.
Investigators said Udstuen shared in Warner's profits and Alan Drazek, owner of American Management Resources, laundered payments to Udstuen, a former top lobbyist for the Illinois State Medical Society.
Udstuen eventually cooperated with the FBI and secretly tape-recorded a telephone call between Ryan and a confidant in April 2002 as part of the Operation Safe Road probe, the Chicago Tribune reported. But investigators could never directly link Ryan's office with official malfeasance.
Last year, Ryan said of Udstuen and Warner, "I've known [them] for 35 years. They're friends, no question about it. And that would be all the more reason that I'd be outraged if I thought they were guilty of these charges."
The senior Veterans' Affairs official said Udstuen "was to be used as a reference" in the Anna veterans' home contract.
"This all represents mismanagement and theft on the part of Johnston," Fritz said.
Several attempts to reach Johnston were unsuccessful.
Paul Taplin, the agency's manger of grants and records, spoke on the record about Fritz, describing him as very capable individual who put his "heart and soul" into the department.
"They let the wrong person go," Taplin told WorldNetDaily. "I worked for Hal Fritz when he was there, and as far as I'm concerned, they almost killed the department."
"His heart and soul was into taking care of veterans, or trying to, and it was just a little strange that they would let him go over, they said, budgetary restraints, when we have people there making more money than him that don't have any responsibility," said Taplin, a 23-year Army veteran.
Others were equally complimentary.
"He's been our mainstay for the past two or three years," Wesley Poore, a representative of the American Ex-POW Springfield Area Chapter, told Copley News Service.
Jon E. Dougherty is a staff reporter and columnist for WorldNetDaily