Wilkie Steps Down As Acting VA Head While Awaiting Senate Confirmation

In another top-level shuffle at the VA, the White House announced Wednesday that acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie was being replaced in the post to get around a potential roadblock to his nomination to become permanent VA Secretary.

Peter O'Rourke, the VA's chief of staff who himself has moved to different positions in the ongoing leadership reorganization, was named as acting Secretary pending Wilkie's Senate confirmation hearing.

The one-line White House announcement from the office of the press secretary said that O'Rourke was designated as acting secretary effective Tuesday.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee that will preside at Wilkie's confirmation hearing, said at a Senate news conference last week that that there was a potential legal problem with the nomination. A section of the U.S. Code bars an acting secretary from taking the job permanently.

Isakson said that in the past there have been cases of acting secretaries who stepped down from the post until they were confirmed, and also cases in which acting secretaries remained on the job and still were confirmed.

Historically, "it's been done both ways," said Isakson.

He said the committee would begin deliberations on Wilkie's nomination after Congress returns from the Memorial Day recess.

The issue of an acting secretary taking the top job was first raised by the VoteVets advocacy group.

"It is abundantly clear that Robert Wilkie cannot be nominated to be VA secretary while serving as acting secretary," Will Fischer, director of Government Relations at VoteVets, said in a statement.

In naming O'Rourke to the acting post, the White House for the second time bypassed VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman, who was formerly staff director for Isakson's committee.

The 71-year-old Bowman, a retired Marine colonel, has announced that he will retire on June 15, the VA said in a statement.

The VA said that Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd would serve temporarily as acting chief of staff while O'Rourke serves as acting secretary. Hayes-Byrd had been VA deputy chief of staff.

Before becoming chief of staff, O'Rourke, an Air Force veteran, had been executive director of VA's Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection.

O'Rourke last year replaced Vivieca Wright Simpson, who was chief of staff to former VA Secretary David Shulkin. She resigned amid a scandal over Shulkin's travel expenses in which he charged the government for his wife's airfare on a trip to Europe.

President Donald Trump fired Shulkin in March and named Wilkie as acting secretary. Wilkie had been serving as the Pentagon's undersecretary for Personnel and Readiness.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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