U.S. House set to vote on bill to reinstate penalties for illegally charging veterans

TAMPA - The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote on a bill prompted by an I-Team investigation into companies illegally charging veterans for services which, by law, should be free.

The bill, H.R. 1826, which is sponsored by Representative Gus Bilirakis, reinstates criminal penalties for anyone who charges veterans fees in exchange for assistance in filing for veterans benefits.

Bilirakis filed the bill after a May 2010 I-Team investigation exposed a Pinellas County company which charged the family of an elderly veteran $2,000 for help in applying for benefits he never received.

"This hole leaves the door open for fly-by-night companies and con artists to take advantage of veterans, unlawfully charging them hundreds or even thousands of dollars," said Bilirakis at the time.

Federal law used to include criminal penalties and fines for individuals or companies caught charging veterans. The penalty portion was stripped from the law several years ago, making the statute unenforceable. "I would make this offense punishable by up to one year in prison and or fines." This "crooked practice must be stopped and this enforcement mechanism is a critical first step," he said.

The House Veterans Affairs Committee voted last week to send Bilirakis' bill to the full house. Bilirakis' office says the bill will come up for a vote the first week of October. If it passes there, it would need to be taken up by the Senate for final approval before it goes on to the president to be signed into law.

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