VA’s revolving door: Wilkie’s moving in, here’s who is out

Jonathan Kaupanger
July 30, 2018 - 1:59 pm

Photo by Pfc. James Bourgeois

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Robert Wilkie is set to start his time as the head of Veterans Affairs today.  During his Senate confirmation hearing, the longtime public official said he will “shake up complacency” at VA.

According to The Washington Post, first on Wilkie’s to-do list is dealing with the agency’s continuing morale problems by reassigning several senior political appointees.  Wilkie’s spokeswoman declined to comment on any specific reassignments, but said changes could come as soon as this week.

“Every previous Secretary has brought his own team with him to lead the organization,” said one senior VA employee who requested to remain anonymous.  “Wilkie has established relationships with Congress and DOD that will help bring the focus back to the provision of care for veterans.” 

Acting Secretary Peter O’Rourke will be reassigned to a less visible role running a new office focusing on improving VA operations.  O’Rourke was VA’s first executive director of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.  Before that he was chief of staff when Vivieca Wright Simpson, a 32-year veteran of VA, left after an inspector general report said she doctored emails and misled ethics officials regarding former Secretary David Shulkin’s trip to Europe.  

O’Rourke’s short time heading VA is not without drama.   On July 18 he received a letter from 12 Senators accusing O’Rourke of putting politics ahead of veterans’ needs.  O’Rourke is accused of making staffing determinations based on political loyalty.   In the letter, the senators say, “These individuals are being punished for not expressing loyalty to the current administration, or for questioning programs or policies before their enactment.”

“I think that the loyalty purge that decimated the knowledge base hurt veterans,” said a former VA employee who believes she was fired under this loyalty purge.  “So stopping these bad actors and hopefully reinstating some of the dedicated civil servants will be useful.  Only time will tell though.”

Wilkie is expected to bring Pamela Powers in as his chief of staff.  Powers filled this roll for Wilkie at the Pentagon.  She will replace Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd who’s been filling in since May.  Hayes-Byrd is expected to move over to human resources. 

Camilo Sandoval, acting chief information officer, was tasked with modernizing VA’s Electronic Health Records System and is expected to leave VA in the coming months.  President Trump nominated James Paul Gfrerer as his choice for Sandoval’s replacement. The former Marine worked at both Defense and State Departments, leading interagency portfolios in counterterrorism and cybersecurity.  Gfrerer needs Senate approval before starting at VA.

Besides moving staff around, there are several senior leadership vacancies Wilkie will need to fill including the positions of deputy secretary, the number two spot at VA and both undersecretary for health and assistant secretary for information technology. 

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