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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The chairman of the House Veterans Committee blasted the Veterans Affairs Department on Tuesday, accusing the agency of criminal failure to respond to evidence of rising suicide rates among former soldiers.
"This is a matter of life and death," said Chairman and Democratic Rep. Bob Filner, of California, "and I think there was criminal negligence in the way this was handled."
In San Francisco federal court Monday, attorneys for veterans' rights groups accused the U.S. Department of Veteran's Affairs of nothing less than a cover-up - deliberately concealing the real risk of suicide among veterans.
The charges were backed by internal e-mails written by Dr. Ira Katz, the VA's head of Mental Health.
In the past, Katz has repeatedly insisted while the risk of suicide among veterans is serious, it's not outside the norm.
"There is no epidemic in suicide in VA," Katz told Keteyian in November.
But in this e-mail to his top media adviser, written two months ago, Katz appears to be saying something very different, stating: "Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts per month among veterans we see in our medical facilities."
Katz's e-mail was written shortly after the VA provided CBS News data showing there were only 790 attempted suicides in all 2007 - a fraction of Katz's estimate.
Mitchell was particularly irate at what he sees as stonewalling by the VA. He said he has spent four months requesting specifics on what resources the agency needs to handle the suicide issue.
He was told to file a Freedom of Information Act request, a method more commonly reserved for the public and media, not congressional committee members, he said.