Veterans Affairs Secretary Togo D. West Jr., faced with sharp criticism from veterans groups and under scrutiny for excessive travel, has informed the White House that he plans to leave the Cabinet, veterans and White House sources said yesterday.
The timing of his departure is uncertain, the sources said. Officially, VA spokesmen maintained that West, who was reported traveling yesterday, would remain head of the department.
But other sources said the White House had informed Congress last week that West would be leaving the administration. Sen. John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV (W.Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, issued a statement expressing confidence that Congress would give the VA the added funds veterans groups want--but said West will not be around to take credit for the increased appropriation.
Some veterans sources said Vice President Gore may have had a hand in West's departure, apparently fearing that veterans might take out their anger with West against Gore's presidential campaign.
"They don't want to be Derwinskized," said one veterans official, referring to the Bush administration's decision to fire then-VA Secretary Edward J. Derwinski, who had come under attack from veterans groups in the midst of George Bush's 1992 reelection campaign.
A former Army secretary and Washington lobbyist, West had won praise at the Pentagon for his handling of sexual harassment charges filed by women soldiers during the first term of the Clinton administration. But when he moved to the VA, West came under fire from congressional Democrats and Republicans for failing to secure what they consider an adequate veterans budget from the White House.
West's own style, sometimes traveling in chartered military jets and rented limousines and ordering a new government Cadillac while his department was facing layoffs, compounded his problems. The VA inspector general is probing West's use of travel funds, according to Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.).
Bond, chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees the VA, expressed concern in April about "what appears to be a pattern of inappropriate practices at the highest level of the department." He referred to West's travel expenses and parties, funded by the VA but honoring non-VA officials. The spending "may not be illegal, but [it] certainly raises eyebrows," Bond said.
West's low-key political style did not help him either. "He had the perception of a no-show guy," said one congressional source.
David W. Gorman, executive director of the Disabled American Veterans, accused West of being "ill-prepared, even disengaged" during a hearing on the VA's budget for fiscal 2000.
Like others, Gorman said he had heard that West had been seeking a new job "for some time."
A White House source said West's battles with veterans groups were a "contributing factor" in his decision to leave, but not the sole reason. "The major issue for him was this is 6.5 years into an eight-year term," the official said. "Like other Cabinet secretaries where you have two terms, people are thinking about their futures."
West's expected departure, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, is likely to thrust control of the VA back into the hands of Deputy Secretary Hershel W. Gober, an Arkansas friend of President Clinton. Gober, who had run the Arkansas veterans department, was Clinton's initial choice to run the agency when Jesse Brown left the VA after the first term.
Gober withdrew his nomination after the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee insisted on examining charges that he had made unwelcome advances to two female veterans. He maintained that he was innocent of any wrongdoing.
Under the Vacancy Act, Clinton can name Gober as acting VA secretary for 210 days. If he submits Gober's name to the Senate for confirmation, Gober can remain head of the VA even longer, probably until the end of Clinton's term, a White House official said.
West would be the second top official to be leaving the VA. Kenneth W. Kizer, undersecretary for health, has announced that he will not seek a second term as head of the VA hospital system.