COVINGTON, Ky. (AP) – The Veterans Affairs Department is free to publicize a no-cost credit monitoring offer to veterans whose personal information was stolen, a federal judge ruled Friday.

U.S. District Court Judge William Bertelsman denied a motion from attorneys who filed a class-action suit on behalf of 26.5 million veterans and active-duty troops after a VA employee’s laptop containing the private data went missing.

Law enforcement officials recovered the laptop this week after it had been stolen from a data analyst’s Maryland home on May 3. The FBI said Social Security numbers and other personal data had not been copied from the computer.

Attorneys in the class-action suit had argued that accepting the offer, which was advertised on the VA’s Web site, could hamper the veterans’ chances of winning more money in court.

“I don’t see anything objectionable in it,” Bertelsman said during a hearing. “The court can’t tell a government agency how it can communicate with its constituents. If they make a statement that’s a false representation … then the court might get into it.”

“We’re encouraged by the fact that we’re allowed to help our veterans,” Scott Hogenson, a VA spokesman, said after the ruling.

VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, during an appearance in Louisville, Ky., before he learned of the judge’s ruling, said the matter “may now be academic” since the stolen laptop had been recovered.

Nicholson said there was a “strong indication” that the personal information was not accessed or compromised after the theft.

The secretary promised a major overhaul of cyber and information security at the VA to prevent such an occurrence again.

“I want to make the VA into the gold standard for information security,” he said in an interview.

Bertelsman also indicated that the recovery of the stolen laptop could affect the class-action suit.

“Some of this may have been cured,” he said.

The lawsuit seeks free monitoring and other credit protection for an indefinite period as well as $1,000 in damages for each person, up to a total of $26.5 billion.

Bertelsman ordered the Veterans Affairs Department to state on its Web site that accepting the credit-monitoring offer does not waive a veteran’s right to participate in any future litigation against the department, a stipulation attorneys for the veterans had sought in their motion.

Bertelsman also suggested the government mention on the site any pending litigation concerning the data theft case. Similar lawsuits are pending in the District of Columbia and New York.

Bertelsman also said that it is too early to rule on whether the suit can be certified as a class-action.

“Right now we don’t have any facts. We don’t know if anyone’s been damaged,” he said.

Marc Mezibov, one of the attorneys who brought the suit on behalf of Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, said Bertelsman’s ruling was “not terribly surprising.” Hackett, who ran for Congress in Ohio in 2004, and Matthew W. Page, a Kentucky veteran, are the plaintiffs in the suit. Neither was at the hearing.

Mezibov said even if no personal data had been taken from the computer, veterans who have spent their own money to have their credit reviewed would have been affected by the theft.

“A lot of veterans have expended money with regard to credit services because they’re concerned,” said John Murdock, another attorney representing the veterans.

Nicholson has urged veterans to keep watch over their financial records until more tests are completed on the laptop.

AP-ES-06-30-06 1758EDT

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