The investigation taking place at the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center is an internal review, not a more serious inspector general probe, such as the one it endured in 1997 amid allegations of misspent money, a VA official said Friday.

Meanwhile, veterans who are patients at the center rallied to the defense of embattled Director John Barilich. "That's nice of them," Barilich said.

He and other Veterans Affairs officials would not talk about the investigation, citing a directive not to release information during the probe. Four staff members who spoke with The Post and Courier would not discuss the matter on the record, saying they feared for their jobs.

Veteran Vernon Dandridge of Cottageville, praised Barilich's management of the center since the director's hiring in 2006. "He's brought that place along so far in a short time," Dandridge said. "It used to be if you went up there for a 20-minute appointment, you waited half a day to see somebody. Now if they don't see you in 15 minutes, they check on you. What could be so bad about management practices when the man has practically rebuilt the place so far as (staff) doing their job?"

Others echoed Dandridge in calls and e-mails to The Post and Courier. A few, though, said they or family members did not get good care at the center.

VA administrative board investigations gather evidence to expose potential deficiencies. Inspector general investigations involve allegations of potential crimes or abuses by senior officials, its Web site and documents said. The board reviews are done in Washington, D.C., said Katie Roberts, press secretary. "It's a check and balance." The findings could result in an inspector general investigation.

Medical University Hospital, which partners with the center for some patient care, is not involved in the investigation, said Maggie Diebolt, a hospital public information specialist.

Veterans Affairs on Thursday acknowledged an administrative investigation was under way and a center public affairs officer said Barilich had retired. Lawrence Biro, the three-state regional director, was in the director's office this week overseeing the operation.

An inspector general's assessment of the Charleston center in April 2008 found problems with administrative details, such as completing peer reviews and patient care deficiency reviews, and recommended Barilich work with Biro to resolve the problems. The report indicated most of them already had been resolved.

Biro, who took over the regional office in 2007, saw an inspector general investigation of improper hiring and misuse of resources at the Central Alabama Veterans Health Care Systems in September 2008.

In 1997, Veterans Affairs conducted an inspector general's investigation of the Charleston center that focused on misspent money and improper hiring at the center among allegations of mismanagement by the director at the time. The inspector's report indicated the misspending allegations were partly substantiated.