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Trump loyalist at VA forced out after collecting pay but doing little work

Peter O'Rourke, who served as VA’s acting secretary for several months this year, was asked to resign from the administration last week. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The Trump administration has forced out a senior White House political appointee at the Department of Veterans Affairs who spent months on the federal payroll doing little to no work.

Peter O’Rourke’s departure marks an unceremonious fall for a Trump loyalist once seen as a rising star at VA, where he nonetheless had a rocky tenure, first leading a high-profile office handling whistleblower complaints, next as chief of staff and then, for two months, as the agency’s acting secretary.

Since August he has held the nebulous role of senior adviser, with an uncertain portfolio and a senior executive salary as high as $161,000. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie asked for his resignation Friday, O’Rourke said.

O’Rourke said in an interview that he remains “very supportive of the president and the agenda of the Trump administration” and would like to rejoin the administration.

“I’d be more than happy to serve again,” he said. “It doesn’t appear there is a request at this time.” He said he “does not hold any grudges.”

Asked why he was getting paid not to work, O’Rourke said he was “available for anything the secretary asked me to do” and acknowledged that “there were times I didn’t have a lot to do.”

Spokesmen for the White House and VA did not respond to requests for comment.

While he did not serve in roles that required Senate confirmation, O’Rourke, a former press lead for Trump’s presidential campaign, wielded huge influence. But his star faded following clashes with lawmakers, VA’s inspector general and other agency officials.

O’Rourke was a central figure during a tumultuous period from which VA has not yet fully recovered, when infighting at its senior levels threatened the president’s agenda for veterans. When Wilkie arrived in late July, he tried to sideline O’Rourke, according to people familiar with the matter.

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When Trump would not fire him, O’Rourke became a senior adviser to the secretary after turning down at least one low-profile job Wilkie offered, people close to VA said. But O’Rourke was rarely in his office at VA headquarters in Washington, according to four people with knowledge of the arrangement, and by last week White House officials had grown concerned that O’Rourke was getting paid but not working, creating a perception problem in a corner of the government where the president has promised greater accountability.

“I don’t think he has any actual responsibilities at work,” one senior administration official said of O’Rourke days before he left.

O’Rourke joins a group of senior administration officials who were forced to exit after their ethics or management style raised questions about their effectiveness. Nowhere in the government has Trump’s pledge to “drain the swamp” of ineffective bureaucrats and poor performers been on display more than at VA, which has pushed out thousands of low-level employees and dozens more senior career civil servants.

“You say you’ve been cleaning up VA, but this guy’s been getting paid to sit on his couch,” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America and a frequent critic of VA’s leadership under Trump.

“Was O’Rourke exempt from this new accountability bill?” Rieckhoff said, referring to legislation Congress passed last year that clears a fast path to firing poor-performing civil servants at VA. “Taxpayers are owed an answer.”

It’s common for federal employees to be placed on paid administrative leave when an agency investigates allegations of misconduct against them. O’Rourke, though criticized by colleagues and lawmakers, was not under investigation for any wrongdoing.

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O’Rourke’s standing in the administration was buoyed by a controversial trio of unofficial advisers to the president who are members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla. The men have exerted huge influence at VA since Trump took office, steering policies and procurements on everything from information technology to mental health care.

As his power and portfolio at VA grew, particularly during the president’s failed nomination of White House physician Ronny L. Jackson to run the agency, O’Rourke was in regular contact with the group, dubbed the “Mar-a-Lago crowd” by agency insiders: Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz and attorney Marc Sherman.

Perlmutter, the group’s de facto leader, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

O’Rourke made regular trips to Mar-a-Lago for meetings with them after Trump fired his first secretary, David Shulkin, amid a highly publicized power struggle with O’Rourke and other political appointees at the agency. He helped the group deepen its involvement in the agency’s day-to-day operations, according to multiple former VA officials and others close to the agency.

After Wilkie assumed power and began to appoint his own leadership team, Perlmutter contacted Trump and advised him to find O’Rourke another job in his administration, telling the president his loyalty should be rewarded, according to two people familiar with the conversation. The White House Personnel Office was tasked with finding him a job at another agency that would suit his background in business development. But that didn’t happen. Instead, O’Rourke was in limbo for more than four months at taxpayers’ expense.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who serves on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said she was disturbed to learn of the arrangement to keep O’Rourke on the payroll while he did not work.

“The VA’s mission is and always has been to serve veterans, not dole out political favors,” Murray said in an email. “I was deeply concerned by Mr. O’Rourke’s time at VA, where as Acting Secretary he made a number of questionable decisions and personnel changes that were suspect at best.”

The committee’s Republican chairman, Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.), declined to comment.

A former Air Force logistics officer, O’Rourke was embroiled in controversy at VA almost from the start. His leadership of the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, created days after Trump took office, has held to account few of the senior managers it was designed to target, and whistleblowers who came forward to report misconduct complain of retaliation.

O’Rourke’s supporters blamed the White House Personnel Office for allowing him to flounder. They say he was dedicated to Trump’s agenda for veterans.

O’Rourke drew unfavorable reviews on Capitol Hill from members of both parties after a dispute with VA’s inspector general, who was denied records he sought from the accountability office. A Washington Post report on O’Rourke’s efforts to purge civil servants and some political appointees whom he and others installed by Trump deemed unsupportive of the president’s agenda drew calls for an investigation by Congress.

His relationship with Wilkie was contentious from the start. The new secretary tried several times to have him fired, according to VA and White House officials. Wilkie complained about him to White House officials, telling them he could not bring calm and restore the sense of mission and morale at VA that lawmakers on Capitol Hill demanded if O’Rourke stayed on.