Watchdog: Eric Shinseki's chief of staff leaving Veterans Affairs

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News,Watchdog,Mark Flatten,Veterans Affairs

Six months after taking heat as the highest-ranking Department of Veterans Affairs official responsible for a pair of overpriced training conferences, Chief of Staff John Gingrich is retiring, The Washington Examiner has learned.

Gingrich announced the decision in a message to the VA staff Tuesday. His statement made no mention of the Orlando conferences or other controversies besetting the agency.

Gingrich is the third-highest official at VA. He is responsible for day-to-day operations of the agency, which is under pressure to conduct a housecleaning of its upper echelons because of the conference debacle and the VA's inability to reduce the long waits veterans face when they file claims for disability compensation.

Gingrich spent 30 years in the Army before retiring as a colonel in 2001, and another seven years working as a civilian, according to his official biography.

He has been VA's chief of staff since 2009.

In October, Gingrich was slammed for his lax oversight of the two training conferences in Orlando in the summer of 2011, which cost a combined $6.1 million.

The VA's inspector general concluded Gingrich failed to control costs when he approved the conferences, which became infamous for a $50,000 video parody of the movie "Patton" and other extravagances. As much as $762,000 was wasted on the conferences, the IG concluded.

In his response to the IG, Gingrich said he took "full responsibility" for the conference costs he approved, but also laid much of the blame for the overspending on his underlings.

"It's my signature upon that page," Gingrich told investigators about his authorization of the conferences and their cost.

The IG's findings led to a call a week later for Gingrich's "immediate removal" from two top congressional Republicans, Rep. Jeff Miller of Florida and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina.

Miller is chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and Burr is the ranking Republican on the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

VA Secretary Eric Shinseki stood by Gingrich at the time but agreed his oversight of the Orlando conferences "was inadequate and that more questions should have been asked prior to authorization."

John Sepulveda, VA's assistant secretary for human resources and administration at the time, resigned the day before the IG report was issued and is the highest-ranking official to lose his job in the scandal.

Miller said Wednesday in a statement to The Examiner that VA needs to find a successor who will be more candid with Congress and the public about the agency's problems.

"Even though I deeply respect John Gingrich's time in uniform and public service, the fact remains that his lack of judgment in approving a number of lavish VA events cost taxpayers more than $6 million and cast a lingering shadow over the department's reputation," Miller said.

"The task at hand for the department is finding a replacement who will avoid repeating Gingrich's past mistakes. In addition to being a good steward of taxpayer dollars, Gingrich's successor must be willing to have an honest conversation about the challenges VA faces and its ability to overcome those challenges -- qualities that are absolutely essential for every VA leader to have."

Last week, Miller called for the removal of Allison Hickey, who as VA's under secretary for benefits heads the division responsible for the disability claims backlog.

Veterans often wait a year or more for a decision on whether they will qualify for disability payments for service-related medical conditions.

More than a million veterans have claims and appeals pending at VA, and the waits keep getting longer. Some media outlets have also called on Shinseki to be replaced.

Gingrich is unclear about when he would leave the agency, but indicated his last day could be as soon as Sunday.

Mark Flatten is a member of The Washington Examiner's Watchdog investigative reporting team. He can be reached at mflatten@washingtonexaminer.com.

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