Top Republicans join call for Shinseki ouster
By CHRIS CARROLL | STARS AND STRIPES Published: May 6, 2014
This story has been updated.
WASHINGTON — Some key Republican legislators are joining with two prominent veterans groups to call for the resignation of Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki.
On Tuesday, Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, and Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., a member of the Veteran’s affairs committee, said Shinseki should leave the VA.
“He needs to step down,” Cornyn told reporters. “The president needs to find a new leader to lead this organization out of the wilderness, and back to providing the service our veterans deserve.”
In a Senate speech earlier in the day, Moran said Shinseki seemed unwilling or unable to fix the department’s problems.
“Veterans are waiting for action and yet the VA continues to operate in the same old bureaucratic fashion, settling for mediocrity and continued disservice to our nation’s heroes,” Moran said. “There’s a difference in wanting change and leading it to happen.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., meanwhile, didn’t demand Shinseki resign, but said new leadership at VA would “be a step in the right direction.”
The White House, however, has voiced support for Shinseki.
On Monday, the head of one of the nation’s major veterans service organizations said Shinseki and top department leadership to step down following reports of delays and neglect at VA health centers around the nation.
American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said Monday the incidents “are part of what appear to be a pattern of scandals that has infected the entire system.”
In a speech at the organization’s headquarters in Indianapolis, he also called for the resignations of Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel and Under Secretary for Benefits Allison Hickey.
Concerned Veterans for America on Monday joined with the Legion in calling for Shinseki to resign.
Dellinger’s call comes on the heels of whistleblower reports that more than 40 veterans may have died awaiting treatment while the Phoenix VA Health Care System maintained a secret waiting list designed to cover up delays in delivering care.
He also pointed to an outbreak of Legionnaires disease at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System that he attributed to “continuous management failures,” as well as delays in providing gastrointestinal services to veterans in Georgia that he said may have hastened the deaths of three cancer patients.
Dellinger also referred to a report this week in USA Today about a VA investigation that showed clerks at a VA clinic in Fort Collins, Colo., were told to falsify records so it would appear doctors were seeing patients within approved time frames.
Shinseki, who was wounded during the Vietnam War, retired from the Army in 2003 after serving as Chief of Staff. He was nominated by President Barack Obama and took over as VA secretary in January 2009.
White House officials said President Barack Obama is taking the VA allegations seriously and has ordered an investigation by the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General.
“The President remains confident in Secretary Shinseki’s ability to lead the Department and to take appropriate action based on the IG’s findings,” the White House said in a statement.
In a statement emailed to Stars and Stripes, VA spokesman Drew Brookie defended Shinseki’s record, saying he had overseen a nearly 50 percent reduction in the disability claims backlog and a 24 percent reduction in veteran homelessness. Under Shinseki’s leadership, VA has also enrolled 2 million more veterans in VA healthcare and provided Post-9/11 GI benefits to more than a million students, he said.
“Secretary Shinseki has dedicated his life to his fellow veterans, and nobody is more committed to completing the work that lies ahead,” Brookie said. “As the Secretary says, providing veterans the quality care and benefits they have earned through their service is our only mission at VA.”
Dellinger said it saddened him to demand the resignations, and he praised Shinseki’s patriotism and sacrifice for the country while serving in the military.
“However, his record as the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs tells a different story,” Dellinger said in his prepared remarks. “It’s a story of poor oversight and failed leadership.”
The head of the Veterans of Foreign Wars issued a statement Monday opposing the Legion’s demand.
But VFW National Commander William A. Thien acknowledged Shinseki has plenty of explaining to do.
“It is paramount that Secretary Shinseki get publicly in front of this immediately to address the valid concerns of veterans and their families, and to re-establish the credibility of the entire VA health and benefits systems, and that of his own office,” Thien said in a press release.
“The VFW looks forward to the swift completion of the ongoing VA Inspector General’s investigation, and we also support closer congressional oversight to help ensure that the VA does not fail in its mission to care for wounded, ill and injured veterans and their survivors,” he added.
The head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America said the organization is surveying its membership on whether Shinseki should remain, and would soon share the result. But, said Paul Rieckhoff, IAVA founder and CEO, Congress must give Shinseki the power to effectively manage the VA.
“It’s not just about leadership; it’s also about giving leadership the tools they need,” he said in an emailed statement. “Congress can do its part by passing H.R. 4031, the VA Management Accountability Act, introduced by Jeff Miller, Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. We need this legislation to strengthen accountability by giving the VA Secretary complete authority to fire or demote employees who have failed to serve veterans.”
Other high-profile figures have called for Shinseki to resign, including Marine Corps veterans Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo.
“If he had these same responsibilities as an Army officer he would have been relieved a long time ago for his lack of leadership,” Coffman said late Monday. “If he fails to resign then the President, as the Commander-in-Chief, has a duty to fire him for gross incompetence.”
American Legion officials said the last time the organization called on a federal official to resign was in 1941, when it demanded Labor Secretary Frances Perkins step down.
Dellinger said veterans need assurance they will be safe receiving treatment at VA health care centers.
“Errors and lapses can occur in any system,” he said. “But The American Legion expects when such errors and lapses are discovered, that they are dealt with swiftly and that the responsible parties are held accountable. This has not happened at the Department of Veterans Affairs.”