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WASHINGTON – Following the departure of Department of Veterans Affairs Chief of Staff Vivieca Wright Simpson, the VA announced Friday that Peter O’Rourke, who leads the new accountability office at the VA, will now be its permanent chief of staff.

Along with the announcement came the message that O’Rourke’s presence will ensure VA leadership works closely with the White House going forward.

O’Rourke, a Navy and Air Force veteran, has headed the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection since it was created in May. In the role, he advises Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin on matters of employee discipline. O’Rourke was previously a member of President Donald Trump’s transition team.

Wright Simpson stepped down from the job Friday morning, following findings that she misled an ethics official into approving expenses for the VA secretary’s wife on a taxpayer-funded trip to Europe. In addition to the ethical violations, her retirement comes amid reports of internal strife at the agency between a White House appointee and longtime civil servants.

On Wednesday, VA Inspector General Michael Missal released a report detailing “serious derelictions” by VA personnel during a 10-day trip to Copenhagen and London, which included full days of leisure activities and cost taxpayers at least $122,000.

Following the report, Shulkin has been attempting to address divisions in the agency and battling for his own political survival.

In a December email obtained by the Washington Post, Jake Leinenkugel, a White House adviser on veterans affairs, expressed frustration and distrust in Shulkin, adding his desire to have him removed and replaced from the VA's top position. He also described Wright Simpson and Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman as obstructionists.

In the aftermath of Wright Simpson’s departure, VA Spokesman Curt Cashour stated the IG’s report was under review and that there could be additional actions taken against VA personnel.

“President Donald Trump has made clear that he expects VA leaders to hold themselves and other employees accountable when they fail to live up to the high standards taxpayers and veterans deserve,” Cashour said.

When asked Friday whether he had the confidence of the president, Shulkin said only that he is in “constant contact” with the White House.

In the official, two-sentence statement posted to the VA website Friday announcing O’Rourke’s new job, Shulkin isn’t mentioned.

Shortly after the announcement, a typed message from Shulkin was shared on Twitter by an account run by the Office of Accountability and Whisleblower Protection Office. In the message, Shulkin takes responsibility for “unfortunate distractions” over the past week, adding that he is grateful O’Rourke agreed to take on the chief of staff role.

Earlier Friday, Shulkin expressed disappointment at Wright Simpson’s retirement.

“I think that she had a great deal of knowledge of the organization and great relations all throughout the health care system,” Shulkin told Stars and Stripes. “One of the reasons I selected her is, I’m still relatively an outsider to the organization and her organizational knowledge was very helpful in understanding how you make changes.”

O’Rourke will continue to serve as director of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection until a new leader is named.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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Nikki Wentling has worked for Stars and Stripes since 2016. She reports from Congress, the White House, the Department of Veterans Affairs and throughout the country about issues affecting veterans, service members and their families. Wentling, a graduate of the University of Kansas, previously worked at the Lawrence Journal-World and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. The National Coalition of Homeless Veterans awarded Stars and Stripes the Meritorious Service Award in 2020 for Wentling’s reporting on homeless veterans during the coronavirus pandemic. In 2018, she was named by the nonprofit HillVets as one of the 100 most influential people in regard to veterans policymaking.
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