BOISE, Idaho – The U.S. Attorney’s office is making a federal case out of spilled soda.

The Bush administration’s top attorney in Idaho is bringing charges against a North Idaho woman for refusing to pay for a Diet Coke and then pouring it out on a counter at a cafeteria in the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Boise.

Natalie Walters, now facing two counts that each carry a maximum sentence of six months in federal prison, thinks the case is a waste of taxpayer money and plans to fight the charges.

U.S. Attorney Tom Moss’s office wouldn’t comment on the case until after Walters’ arraignment, set for Oct. 8.

Roger Banks, listed on the court record as the investigating agent with the Department of Veterans Affairs, did not return the Statesman’s phone call Wednesday.

Walters, though, told her side of the story: 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.

What happened the next day upsets Walters most.

“They did not know who I was. But they had the whole thing on videotape,” she said.

The tapes also showed her with her father in other areas of the hospital. The next day, while her father was at a dentist appointment at the VA, an official came in, told him about the incident and asked him to have his daughter contact the hospital.

“They accessed my father’s medical records to find out his next appointment to try and find me,” she said. “I think that is a (federal health privacy law) violation. Medical records are private,” she said.

“They should not have used a veteran’s medical records to find me. … My dad was upset. He could not believe it.” Walters never contacted the VA and that was the last she heard about the incident until a Statesman reporter contacted her Wednesday and informed her of the federal charges and her Oct. 8 arraignment.

She was shocked.

“My father is a veteran. It is a federal facility for veterans. This should have been handled differently,” she said. “This is extreme. This is totally extreme. Well, if they have that much time on their hands, go for it.”

On the court documents, federal prosecutors estimated a trial on the case will last two days.

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