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Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough holds a news conference Wednesday, Sept 15., 2021, at VA headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. McDonough on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, approved the formation of a commission to search for candidates to fill the top job for the agency’s benefits administration.

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough holds a news conference Wednesday, Sept 15., 2021, at VA headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. McDonough on Tuesday, July 19, 2022, approved the formation of a commission to search for candidates to fill the top job for the agency’s benefits administration. (Screenshot from video)

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough has approved the formation of a commission to search for candidates to fill the top job for the agency’s benefits administration and named someone to serve in the position in the interim.

The Veterans Benefits Administration’s undersecretary post has been vacant for almost two years. The job was held last officially by Paul Lawrence, who served in the role from May 2018 until January 2021. Thomas Murphy has served as the interim undersecretary since January 2021.

In the meantime, the VA announced Joshua Jacobs, a senior adviser to McDonough, will take over the duties as interim undersecretary for the Veterans Benefits Administration, effective July 25. Murphy will resume his previous duties as the director of the Veterans Benefits Administration’s northeast district.

Terrence Hayes, the VA press secretary, said there is no timeline for finding and naming an undersecretary for benefits and the agency will provide more details on the search when there is more to announce.

In March, the White House nominated Ray Jefferson for undersecretary for Veterans Benefits Administration. Jefferson is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and served as an Army officer from 1988 to 1999, according to his LinkedIn profile. During his military service, Jefferson lost all five fingers on his left hand after he cupped a defective grenade to protect other soldiers.

After his service, Jefferson served various roles with state and federal government agencies, including as a special assistant to the Department of Commerce secretary, and deputy director for Hawaii’s Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. In 2009, former President Barack Obama appointed Jefferson as the assistant secretary for Veterans Employment and Training at the Department of Labor.

However, in 2011, two subordinates accused Jefferson of procurement improprieties, such as directing government business to associates, according to a Washington Post report in 2020. The allegations forced Jefferson to resign.

But in September 2019, the Labor Department inspector general reversed the findings, exonerating Jefferson. Still, at a Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing in April, Republican members questioned Jefferson’s qualifications.

President Joe Biden withdrew Jefferson’s nomination on July 11, according to the Congress website.

AMVETS, a national veterans nonprofit organization, said they applaud McDonough’s approval of the commission.

“It’s our hope that this rapidly and responsibly leads to the induction of much needed leadership in these key roles,” AMVETS said in a prepared statement. “While it is bad enough that VA has seen a revolving door of secretaries over the past few years, this department has also gone long stretches with no undersecretaries or other key department positions filled. We urge the secretary to encourage swift, prepense selections from this commission.”

The Veterans Benefits Administration is not the only VA agency that is without a permanent leader. The top role at the agency’s health care system has been vacant for more than five years.

The Veterans Health Administration undersecretary job was previously held by David Shulkin. Shulkin left the position in February 2017 after he was nominated by former President Donald Trump as the VA secretary.

In March, the White House named Shereef Elnahal as the nominee for the Veterans Health Administration undersecretary job. Elnahal’s nomination is pending, according to the Senate executive calendar.

“We’re not sure people understand the instability and uncertainty created from not having leadership in these key positions,” AMVETS said. “Without highly qualified people shaping and steering the vision and direction of the VA, lower-level employees are lost and the programs, initiatives, and resources that are supposed to be executed under these administrations come to a standstill.”

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Sara Samora is a Marine Corps veteran and the veterans reporter for Stars and Stripes. A native Texan, she previously worked at the Houston Business Journal and the New Braunfels Herald-Zeitung. She also serves on the boards of Military Veterans in Journalism and the Houston Association of Hispanic Media Professionals.
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