Devon Mathis’ election to the California State Assembly in November of 2014 was considered an historic victory. The Veterans’ community campaigned hard to get someone elected who would fight for their cause in Sacramento. Disillusioned conservatives were pumped that a young independent resoundly beat the Republican establishment.
On election night, Mathis’ campaign team celebrated at the Veterans Memorial Building in Visalia and vowed his time in office would be run by locals and not outsiders. Mathis’ supporters saw his election as a new age of Republican activism and planned on opening the lines of communications with all constituents, including Democrats.
“We believed in the guy. We believed he was going to change things,” said a former staffer.
The excitement turned to disillusionment as Mathis allegedly struggled to win the respect of his peers on the assembly floor, failed to get his bills passed, and either fired or pushed away his original team to be replaced by outsiders. In one year, Assemblyman Mathis lost seven employees, everyone from his chief of staff to the local secretary.
Discontent from his former team started bubbling to the surface months ago. That discontentment culminated in a unified chorus after Mathis announced in January his new Veteran’s bill.
The goal of the bill is to give the Department of Veterans Affairs a million dollars a year to help educate veterans on how to get the benefits they deserve. Mathis’ former staff said the new bill, though a worthy cause, illustrated the hypocrisy in Mathis’ tenure as a Republican assemblyman.
The Back Story
Mathis was a truck driver for the National Guard in Iraq when his truck was blown up by an improvised explosive device (IED) in April of 2008. Mathis, who had been shaken up in an explosion nine months prior, was told by his doctor that if it he took another hit he may not live through it. In the last explosion he sustained a traumatic head injury and consequently suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
Because of his injuries, the Veterans Administration (VA) has rated Mathis as 100% disabled. As a result, Mathis receives $40,188 a year in VA benefits that are tax free. His wife allegedly receives $24,000 a year from the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) to be Mathis’ home health care aid.
Mathis’ salary as assemblyman is $109,000 a year, in addition to the best insurance the state has to offer. He receives $168 per diem, four days a week, to pay for a residence in Sacramento. Expenses could be cut in half if he were to share an apartment, like many assemblymen do. Whatever is left over the can be pocketed, which is also tax free.
A few months into Mathis’ term as assemblyman, several staff members told the Valley Voice they had suggested, that while he held office, he donate his VA benefits back to the VA. These former staff members said that collecting taxpayer funded benefits, and a taxpayer funded salary, had the appearance of double dipping. In addition, they felt it was not consistent with the Republican ideal of being a fiscal conservative. Everything considered, the former staff members that spoke with the Valley Voice were also uneasy about his wife, Aubrey, allegedly receiving $2000 a month from the WWP.
Mathis’ response was, according to one former staffer, “Well, I’ll think about it.”
A January, 2016 court document confirms that Mathis is still collecting $3349.00 a month in VA disability benefits.
This question is – should Assemblyman Mathis collect 100% VA disability benefits while collecting his state salary, benefits, and per diem?
The Assembly has no issue with Assembly Member Mathis taking his Assembly salary while receiving VA benefits, according to Debra Gravert, chief administrative officer of the Assembly Rules Committee.
It’s Not Double Dipping
For those not familiar with the VA system, being rated 100% disabled by the VA is different from collecting disability from the State of California. If one is collecting traditional disability, in most cases, it would be considered fraud to work fulltime.
On the other hand, the VA encourages injured vets to return to a normal life of raising a family, going to school or even working fulltime. The one criterion is that the veteran should be receiving treatment for their disability. Many in the veteran community who were interviewed or who left comments on the Valley Voice web page do not consider it double dipping to receive VA benefits and a state salary at the same time. They felt that Mathis earned them by serving his country and that it is disrespectful to suggest otherwise.
A handful of veterans wrote emails and comments on the Valley Voice webpage in response to a Political Fix column that criticized Mathis. John Reece wrote, “He is a war hero as far as I am concerned. Why would you begrudge him something he has so obviously earned in the heat of battle. I am a retired sailor, state employee, VA disability & social security person drawing a small pension from each. Should I pick one to live on & forgo the rest? I feel that I earned each pension as has Assy. Mathis.”
Richard Osborne, from Porterville College said, “Does Mr. Mathis receive VA benefits for his traumatic brain injury? I certainly hope so. Neither you nor I know the amount of that benefit, but whatever it is, it was determined by a team of qualified professionals within the VA system. Does his wife receive $2,000.00 per month from the Wounded Warrior Project? I very much doubt that . . . why don’t you just ask him?”
According to Nick Guest, State Adjutant/Quartermaster from Elk Grove, “As for Mr. Mathis and his VA benefits, he earned those benefits. It is safe to say that had Mr. Mathis chose not to serve his country, he would never have received the head injury and would not be collecting benefits. I really fail to see the correlation between getting VA benefits for a Service Connected Disability and being paid as an Assemblyman.”
It is Double Dipping
The Veteran’s community is not a united front in supporting Mathis’ receiving both his taxpayer funded salary and taxpayer funded VA Benefits. Two local veterans’ advocates were dismayed to learn it was true. One advocate who is a Vietnam Vet stated, “the fact that you can double dip is legal but it is not ethical.” He also added that the WWP has been in hot water lately for misuse of funds and that “Mathis’ spouse receiving money while he is in Sacramento sounds suspicious.”
Another veterans’ advocate said, “This has personally been a great disappointment. I’m heartbroken. As a soldier you know the difference between right and wrong.” He added, “your (Valley Voice) coverage of Mr. Mathis has been appreciated. Good insight on some matters. After 30 years myself in the United States Military, I do understand the meaning of doing what is right, simply because it is the right thing to do.”
A Vietnam Vet from Porterville who is classified as 10% disabled said that he felt Mathis was being a hypocrite. He said that if Mathis is able to work fulltime in a high stress job he should give his VA money to a veteran who can’t. “What about all those homeless veterans?”
The Mathis’ original staff members that reached out to the Valley Voice said they felt he should have relinquished his VA disability benefits. One staff member said, “I was really disappointed because Devon took that money. It was just frowned upon. This is a moral issue and there will be a backlash.”
Another former staff member said, “And yea, we told him that people don’t like it when people double dip. It’s that simple. Legal is not moral and it certainly flies in the face of everything he’s talking about regarding veterans being taken care of. I personally think it is something that should be talked about nationally.”
Mathis’ former Visalia neighbor called the Valley Voice to request he be interviewed. During the interview he said, “As a four-year veteran myself, it upsets me to think that someone enjoying his position and salary and perks would milk the VA system. I feel he is ripping off the taxpayers.”
Mathis’ neighbor said he has lived at his current house for 32 years and was Devon Mathis’ neighbor for two years.
Wounded Warrior Project
Another point of contention between Mathis and his original staff was the fact that his wife allegedly collects $2,000 a month from the WWP to be his caretaker. Again, there was no consensus as some constituents agreed with her collecting the WWP funds, while other did not.
A person close to the Mathis family said, “They had periodic required interviews to qualify for the WWP funds. The $2,000 is Aubrey’s money from Wounded Warriors to be his caretaker.”
A former staffer said he was bothered “about his wife collecting money from WWP for being a care taker while he has access to the best healthcare in the state.”
Nick Guest wrote in an email to the Valley Voice in support of Mathis. “As far as what his wife gets from WWP, …. so what? WWP is a private charity and what they choose to give someone is their business. It is not government money as your article hints at, that is between her and WWP.”
Mathis’ Visalia neighbor was adamant in his disagreement with Guest. The neighbor was quite upset to hear about the alleged funds from the WWP and said concerning Mathis’ wife taking care of him in Sacramento, “The girl must have long arms.” He added that, “She doesn’t assist in any way in taking care of Devon.”
Mathis himself confirms his neighbor’s assumptions in an April 2015 court document.
“My current wife is required to stay home full time to provide for the needs and doctor’s appointments (of their newborn twins)….My wife cannot work outside the home while caring for the twins and being involved with all the associated doctors’ appointments…”
The Nuclear Fourth Rail
Locals have questioned that if someone is able to handle the high-stress fulltime job of being an assemblyman, then maybe it’s time for the VA to reevaluate Mathis. But questioning VA disability is a dangerous endeavor for constituents, politicians, the media and even veterans. The Los Angeles Times reported that, “If Social Security is the third rail of American politics, then the VA disability system is the fourth, nuclear rail.”
Everyone asked was more than willing to give me their opinion, but because of the guaranteed scorn, no one wanted their name in the paper if they disagreed with Mathis, not even the veteran advocates. The former staff would not give their names out of fear for their future employment.
To put Mathis’ disability in perspective, the US Congresswoman from Illinois, Tammy Duckworth, reflected that she has a lower VA disability rating–20%–than most veterans, despite having had both her legs blown off and losing significant use of her right arm when her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down.
A Tulare County veteran, who fought in the infantry in Iraq and was injured in combat, lost the use of the left side of his brain. Though years later he has gained no activity in the left side of his brain, he is only rated at 60% disabled. He did not agree with Mathis’ rating of 100%, but also did not think Mathis was double dipping.
Government audits have shown that the VA benefit system has strayed far from its official purpose of compensating veterans for their lost earning capacity–but saying this out loud is taboo.
Mathis’ former Visalia neighbor of two years served in the army from 1956-1960 and is retired. His wife babysat several times for the Mathis children and the families had squabbles over the Mathis’ yard and their many pets. So they got to know each other quite well. The neighbor said “The taxpayers are getting ripped. Mathis never displayed any disability and is totally capable of taking care of himself.”
On the other hand, Richard Goode, Mathis’ Porterville college professor in 2009 said in a web post, “I would watch his knuckles go white as he dealt with the pain of his injuries. Every day he must work through the effects of his injuries. In spite of them he excelled in my classes and graduated with Honors. He has gone on to prove that even with his injuries, he will succeed.”
Another web post stated, “I remember going to the VA hospital with him [Mathis] because of continuous excruciating headaches and body that would give way to the point that he would have to be drug or picked up and carried due to his injuries. Instead of choosing drugs so willingly offered by the doctors, he chose to work hard to try to overcome the damage that he received in protecting the rights of all, even those who so insultingly oppose veterans’ receiving some compensation for bodily damage(s) received in battle.”
Staffers who worked closely with Mathis, including 12-hour days, over-nighters, weekends and road trips, agreed that Mathis could be disabled in some capacity, but could not readily see what it was. Two former staffers and a veterans’ advocate who worked closely with Mathis on his 2014 campaign responded when questioned about what was his disability, “I really don’t know.” Another staffer said that Mathis’ disability might be that he has trouble with memorization, writing and reading a speech from a prepared document. “He is better at doing speeches off the cuff,” he said.
Mathis, himself, declared he was perfectly healthy during a child custody dispute with his ex-wife. Mathis submitted in a court hearing an evaluation of his health by a licensed clinical social worker. It states, “Devon appears to be in good physical health. He states he eats balanced meals and has a membership at a local gym where he frequently works out. …While in Iraq he was treated for a concussion he received when he hit a road side bomb. Subsequently Devon was awarded a Purple Heart. Other than occasional headaches he has no other complaints.”
A social worker may not have the medical degree to diagnose PTSD or a traumatic brain injury, but Mathis submitted her evaluation under penalty of perjury to tell the court that, in his opinion, he was perfectly healthy.
There are no clear answers. The bottom line is that it is not illegal to receive money from several different government sources funded by the taxpayers, but is it ethical? Is it in-line with being a fiscally conservative Republican?
On the other hand, in deciding not to donate his benefits back to the VA while in office, Assemblyman Mathis did what was in the best economic interest for his large family, Yet, he made big item purchases that add up to more than an assemblyman makes, rendering the debate mute. Mathis has to collect the extra money to pay his bills. He bought a brand new $75,000 truck in 2014, and a new home in an upscale Visalia neighborhood in 2015 as listed on his child support financial disclosure form. Republicans tend to agree that his large family and big ticket items are not the taxpayers’ problem.
In conclusion, if questioned about his being fit enough to be an assemblyman, or fit enough for joint custody of his kids from his first wife, then he is perfectly healthy. When questions arose about whether he should keep his VA disability benefits while in office, he was depicted as a veteran coping with PTSD and a traumatic head injury.
In most people’s lives, such personal issues as income and medical conditions remain private. But Mathis is a public servant and his money is the people’s money. His constituents have a right to know, and as taxpayers have a right to discuss how their money is spent.
Several attempts have been made to reach Mathis for comment. Upon the first, when he was actually contacted, he said he was busy and asked that an appointment be made through his scheduler in Sacramento. Upon reaching Brittney Kreuzer, the scheduler, she requested that an e-mail request be made per their policy.
On a follow-up call several days later, Kreuzer said that the matter was being reviewed and that she could not schedule an appointment until it was approved.
On February 12, another call was placed to Mathis’ Sacramento office when Justin Turner, legislative director, was reached. He responded that the office and Mathis were very busy at this time, and asked what the call was regarding.
When told it was with regard to Mathis’ VA disability Turner said, “Oh, that’s you guys. Several people called the day that article came out.
We were asked, “Can’t you fix it?’” he said.
The Valley Voice responded that this was the opportunity for Mathis to address the matter. No response has thus far been made.
Nancy Vigran contributed to this article.