Gov. Mary Fallin’s top advisor on veterans’ affairs said Tuesday she was excluded from important meetings of the commission that oversees that state’s veterans’ affairs agency amid reports of abuse and neglect at seven veterans’ centers.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, Fallin’s secretary of Military and Veterans Affairs, told a state Senate panel she was not allowed to attend executive sessions of the War Veterans Commission when problems at the Oklahoma Department of Veterans’ Affairs were discussed.

Aragon told members of the Senate Committee on Veterans and Military Affairs that former commission members felt no obligation to keep the governor informed about reports of abuse and neglect at the veterans’ centers or how the commission planned to respond.

“I have no authority, therefore I have no need to know,” Aragon said as she summed up the attitude of previous commission members. She said her lack of knowledge made it “extremely difficult” to advise the governor on issues involving the agency.

“Everything was very protected,” Aragon said. She said her relationship with the commission changed after Fallin replaced most of its members in May. New members have “a wonderful, fresh approach” that includes greater transparency, she said.

The commission’s new chairman, Rich Putman, told the Senate panel he believes there was inadequate oversight of the previous commission and cutting the governor’s office out of important decisions was a mistake.

“We lost our trust and we’re trying to get it back,” Putman said. “We are brand new. We are learning our way.”

Members of the Senate panel questioned Aragon and Putman on the first day of an investigation into reports of abuse and neglect at the state’s veterans’ centers, where 1,482 of the state’s 350,000 veterans are housed. Several veterans attended the meeting at the state Capitol.

Aragon said the state is facing seven wrongful death lawsuits involving the deaths of veterans in state care.

Fallin asked Auditor and Inspector Gary Jones earlier this month to do an audit of the state’s veterans’ affairs agency following the resignation of longtime executive director Martha Spear.

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