Army Secretary Is Choice For Veterans Affairs Helm
By Bill McAllister
The White House told veterans groups yesterday that it wants Army Secretary Togo D. West Jr. to become secretary of veterans affairs and is prepared to use a little-known federal law to place him in immediate charge of the huge department.
President Clinton has come under fire for leaving the Department of Veterans Affairs without a secretary since mid-summer and veterans advocates said yesterday they believe the White House wants to announce West's selection by Tuesday, Veterans Day.
Clinton is scheduled to meet with leaders of veterans groups that morning and then make the traditional Veterans Day address at Arlington National Cemetery. West is scheduled to be among the guests at the ceremony. West would become the third African American in the Cabinet.
Administration officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that West, who has directed the Army's handling of what has become a widespread sexual harassment scandal, was the president's choice for the VA job. The VA had been hit by similar charges from women working in a number of veterans hospitals.
Four veterans groups the Disabled American Veterans, AMVETS, Paralyzed Veterans and the Veterans of Foreign Wars had argued in a letter to Clinton Wednesday that the new VA secretary should not only be a veteran, but, like former secretary Jesse Brown, have been a veterans advocate in the past.
West, 55, who served in the Army's Judge Advocate General Corps and had been a defense lobbyist, does not seem to meet the second requirement. The groups did not formally oppose a West nomination in their talks with White House personnel chief J. Robert Nash yesterday, and a DAV official said Nash planned to consult with other veterans and women's groups before getting back to them on Monday.
But David W. Gorman, executive director of the Washington DAV office, said the White House made clear that West was the likely nominee. "Clearly, they're getting poised to do it," Gorman said.
An official at the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee said the Senate would probably not object to the administration invoking a rarely used provision in the Vacancy Act to place West in immediate charge of the VA because "it's time they had some adult supervision down there."
The act allows a president to replace a head of an executive branch agency who has resigned or died with an official who has been confirmed by the Senate for another office. Such an appointment can last 120 days, or longer, if the president asks the Senate to confirm the individual in the new job.
The position of VA secretary has been vacant since the July 1 resignation of Brown, the former head of the Washington office of the DAV. Clinton first selected Deputy VA Secretary Hershel W. Gober, a longtime Arkansas friend, to succeed Brown.
After Senate Republicans had insisted on a public airing of allegations that Gober made "unwanted contact" with two women at a veterans event in 1993, the president withdrew the nomination Oct. 24. Gober had been cleared by an internal VA investigation but Senate Republicans were not happy with the way the probe was conducted. Gober remains deputy secretary.
Yesterday, Nash told the veterans groups that a major reason Clinton had decided on West was his experience handling the Army's sexual harassment controversy. After allegations of harassment emerged from training at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, West ordered the Army to do its most comprehensive some would say painful look at itself.
West then managed to deflect criticism of the fact that the panel found widespread problems of sexual harassment and that a surprising number of soldiers lacked confidence in their leaders.
Gorman of the DAV said his group was not buying Nash's argument that West's experience on that issue was vital for the VA. Gorman said the VA's sexual harassment problems had not been as widespread as those uncovered in the Army and that the problems could be managed by a lower-level VA official.
As head of the VA, the youngest of the 14 Cabinet departments, West would move up a notch in Washington bureaucratic hierarchy. But he would have to give up some of the perks of being a head of a military service, such having a staff of military aides, cooks and booming cannon salutes when he arrives at military posts.
His departure from the Pentagon would leave a void in the Army's civilian leadership. The position of under secretary is also vacant and one of West's principal confidantes, assistant secretary for manpower Sara E. Lister, is leaving by the end of the month.
Staff writer Dana Priest contributed to this report.
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