VA Secretary Eric Shinseki's chief of staff will leave that post Sunday, saying "my wife and I decided it was time to retire," but the Department of Veterans Affairs honcho exits amid the sound of Capitol Hill criticism.
John Gingrich, a retired Army colonel who commanded a field artillery battalion during the Gulf War, told VA staffers in a note that after 37 years of combined military and federal service, he had discussed his "transition" with Shinseki earlier this year, as the Obama administration began its second term. During that conversation, Gingrich and Shinseki "agreed to ensure a smooth transition and to set the conditions for an interim chief of staff, which will be completed by March 31," he wrote.
"Over the last four years, I have had the tremendous honor to serve the Nation's Veterans, their families, and survivors as VA's Chief of Staff," Gingrich wrote to VA employees. "I will always be grateful for the opportunity that the Secretary afforded me. After a long career in the Army, and after four years of balancing my dedication to the department with my other responsibilities, it is time for me to shift my focus."
Word of his departure comes six days after members of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America met with White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough about the chronically long claims-benefits backlog, which is managed by VA. The leader of that veteran's group, Paul Rieckhoff, called on President Obama to find an immediate fix for the backlog, adding the time had come "to go above the VA" on the problem.
'Lack of judgement'
Also last week, Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told NBC News "the president needs to take a personal interest" in the backlog. Miller, additionally, had called for Gingrich to resign in October after revelations surfaced detailing improper VA spending. Last fall, Miller condemned Gingrich’s approval of an $8 million budget for a pair of VA human resources conferences held in Florida during 2011.
“Even though I deeply respect John Gingrich’s time in uniform and public service, the fact remains that his lack of judgment in approving a number of lavish VA events cost taxpayers more than $6 million and cast a lingering shadow over the department’s reputation," Miller said Tuesday in a statement.
"The task at hand for the department is finding a replacement who will avoid repeating Gingrich’s past mistakes," Miller said. "In addition to being a good steward of taxpayer dollars, Gingrich’s successor must be willing to have an honest conversation about the challenges VA faces and its ability to overcome those challenges — qualities that are absolutely essential for every VA leader to have.”