No Comment — September 20, 2008, 10:16 am

Unexpected Consequences from a Mug of Soda

The Bush Justice Department continuously tells us it is beleaguered, under-resourced, and having a hard time battling crime. But sometimes its enthusiasm for a prosecution is just effervescent. The latest episode showing the Justice Department’s more than curious notions of justice can be found this week in the pages of the Idaho Statesman. Natalie Walters is now facing prosecution that could put her in prison for six months. Her crime? She poured a cup of Diet Coke on a counter in a Veteran’s Administration cafeteria.

The 39-year-old North Idaho resident periodically drives her father, a disabled Vietnam veteran, to Boise’s VA Medical Center for doctor visits. She brings her own mug and fills it with soda in the hospital’s cafeteria. The cafeteria does not have a posted price for refills and typically the cashier charges her $1 or $1.50, Walters said.

But on Aug 20, when Walters filled her mug with Diet Coke, the clerk charged $3.80. “I told her that cannot be right and asked to talk to the manager,” Walters said. The manager told Walters the price is correct. Walters decided she didn’t want to pay that much and offered to return the soda, she said. But the manager told her there was no way to accept the returned soda, so Walters had to pay. Walters refused, and she said she was angry by this point, and she poured the soda onto the counter. The manager banned Walters from the cafeteria. Walters left but remained in the hospital for a couple of hours waiting for her father to finish his appointments. No one came to talk to her, so she assumed the soda ordeal was over.

Evidently not. VA bureaucrats used surveillance cameras to monitor her movements in the hospital and then, in what was possibly a criminal act, and certainly an unethical one, accessed the medical records of her father to demand that he be in touch with his daughter and pressure her to turn herself in over the spat.

The VA turned the matter over to Idaho U.S. attorney, Thomas E. Moss, who prides himself on having been picked as an adviser to Alberto Gonzales. Moss literally decided to make a federal case of it by bringing a prosecution. Remember, this is the same Bush Justice Department which has advised Congress that it “lacks the resources” to investigate or prosecute more than 30 rape cases involving contractors in Iraq, and which recently decided that senior Republican appointees caught in a massive corruption, cocaine and illicit sex scandal at the Interior Department weren’t worth going after. The Justice Department knows, however, just where its priorities lie.

And that $3.80 cup of Diet Coke? A former Coca-Cola bottling executive told me that the cost to a vendor in syrup and carbonated water of a Diet Coke dispensed in an 8-ounce container would be approximately 8 cents ($0.08). The profit margin that the VA was seeking on the sale was therefore staggering–price gouging directed at visitors and patients at a Veteran’s facility. (I didn’t factor in the ice, but still.) It’s good to know the Justice Department’s priorities, but unfortunate that justice is not one of them.

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