Vet groups to wait and see on nominee

Prominent veterans' groups on Monday expressed cautious optimism that President Obama’s choice to lead the Veterans Affairs Department would be able to restore confidence in the scandal-plagued agency.

The White House said Sunday the president would nominate Robert McDonald, a 1975 West Point graduate and, until last year, a Procter & Gamble chief executive, to run the troubled department. Obama is expected to announce McDonald’s nomination officially on Monday.

“This is definitely a surprising pick. McDonald is not a name that was on anyone’s radar over the last few weeks,” Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a statement. “His branding background may prove helpful, because there are few organizations in America with a worse reputation with its customers than the VA right now.”

McDonald “will use his management experience as a corporate executive to turn around” the VA and “bring accountability to calcified bureaucracy that has been allowed to fester without it for too long,” according to Pete Hegseth, chief executive officer for Concerned Veterans for America.

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If confirmed by the Senate, McDonald would take the helm of an agency that has been rocked by months of scandal.

Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned, after a pair of investigations uncovered widespread fraud at VA clinics and hospitals nationwide, including employees and managers manipulating wait times to make it appear that more veterans were receiving care and keeping thousands of veterans off official patient rolls.

The latest blow came on Friday, when a White House-led review of the VA called for a total overhaul of the agency and blasted the department’s “corrosive culture.”

Meanwhile, the VA’s inspector general has ongoing investigations at nearly 70 department sites and is working with the Justice Department to determine if criminal charges should be brought against those found guilty of data manipulation.

Rieckhoff said his organization hopes to work with McDonald, but noted the 60-year-old nominee has “been away from the military for quite a while and will have to move quickly to show he is committed to and understands the post-9/11 generation of veterans.”

He also expressed disappointment that the administration did not reach out to veterans groups during its search for a new VA chief, but “we hope they will now.”

Hegseth said his group is “optimistic about the president’s pick, but we’ll be watching to ensure that McDonald and his team put the medical needs of our nation’s veteran population ahead of the compensation and protection of department employees.”

The influential Veterans of Foreign Wars does not comment on presidential nominations, according to a group spokesman.

In addition to the VA’s internal woes, McDonald will also have to work to repair ties with Capitol Hill. More than 100 lawmakers called for Shinseki’s ouster, and relations have been rocky in the wake of the ongoing revelations.

House and Senate lawmakers are hammering out compromise legislation designed to boost accountability at the department by providing the VA secretary new power to fire senior executives and give veterans more access to private medical providers in certain cases.

The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee has yet to schedule a confirmation hearing for McDonald but is expected to due so once lawmakers return from recess.

American Legion National commander Daniel Dellinger said that, while his national group is prohibited from endorsing or opposing political nominations, McDonald “will need to have complete hiring and firing authority, along with a willingness to see that those who committed illegal acts are prosecuted.”