Eric Shinseki resigned as secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department on Friday after meeting with President Barack Obama about mounting evidence of widespread misconduct and mismanagement at the agency’s vast network of medical facilities.
Shinseki, 71, had said for weeks that he wanted to stay in his job to confront accusations that officials at the department’s hospitals had manipulated waiting lists to cover up long delays in scheduling appointments for thousands of veterans.
In a speech Friday to a veterans group, he apologized and described his agency as having “a systemic, totally unacceptable lack of integrity.” He vowed to fix what he called a “breach of integrity” and said he had already initiated the firing of top managers at the V.A. medical center in Phoenix, where allegations of mismanagement first surfaced.
But his contrition and promises of action came too late to save his job.
In an interview for the “Live With Kelly and Michael” show that aired before he met with Shinseki, Obama said he was preparing for a “serious conversation” with his Cabinet secretary about “whether he thinks that he is prepared and has the capacity to take on the job of fixing it.” The meeting took place Friday in the Oval Office.
A preliminary report released Wednesday by the department’s inspector general corroborated many of the most disturbing accusations and offered a grim portrait of widespread mismanagement at the medical center in Phoenix. The report said investigators were finding similar problems at other veterans hospitals around the country.
“Our reviews have identified multiple types of scheduling practices that are not in compliance with VHA policy,” the report’s investigators wrote, adding that “inappropriate scheduling practices are systemic” across the system.
Obama said last week that he would wait for the results of several investigations into the hospital allegations before taking any action to hold Shinseki or other officials accountable. And until this week, several top lawmakers in both parties said they continued to have confidence in Shinseki to remain in charge.
But that support from Capitol Hill began to crumble Wednesday evening as lawmakers digested the inspector general’s report. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a Vietnam veteran and a Republican defender of Shinseki’s, called for him to resign, and several Democratic lawmakers became the first to break ranks and also demand his departure.
“After seeing the report released today, I believe Secretary Shinseki should step down,” Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., said in a statement Wednesday. “We need new management at the V.A. to lean hard on wrongdoers and clean house wherever necessary.”
Like many in Congress, Shea-Porter described Shinseki as “a great man and a war hero,” and thanked him for his service. A Vietnam veteran who lost part of a foot after stepping on a land mine during combat, Shinseki rose to become a general and the chief of staff for the Army.
But the quiet and reserved officer who had made many friends among members of Congress appeared to have run out of time as the hospital scandal dragged on.
In 2008, when he nominated Shinseki to lead the Veterans Affairs Department, Obama said “it breaks my heart” that so many veterans were struggling with problems like inadequate medical care, and he hailed Shinseki as “exactly the right person who is going to be able to make sure that we honor our troops when they come home.”
A four-star general who spent nearly four decades in the Army, Shinseki had captured the attention of Obama and other Democrats in 2003, when he publicly disputed claims by top officials for President George W. Bush that the United States could invade Iraq with a relatively small force.
During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Shinseki told lawmakers that an invasion of that country could require “something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers.” That assessment angered Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who had said the invasion could proceed with a much smaller force.
In 2008, Obama said of Shinseki’s assessment: “He was right.”
Those who know Shinseki praise him as a man of honor and convictions. Michael O’Hanlon, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, said he had “an old-fashioned concept of gentlemanly behavior.”
W. Scott Gould, who was Shinseki’s deputy at Veterans Affairs for four years, calls him “a deeply principled leader.”
When Gould began working for Shinseki, he said, he soon heard from colleagues of the visits Shinseki would make, as the Army chief of staff, to soldiers recovering from war wounds in the hospital. He paid special attention to amputees.
“When a new amputee arrived, he would go to the bedside and pull off his shoe and sock and remove his prosthetic and essentially put it up on the bedside of that youngster and say: ’Your life is changed. It’s not over,’ ” Gould said.
He said he had once asked Shinseki why he did that. “He would say, ’Part of my mission is personal example,’ ” Gould said.
But some in Washington question whether it was the correct decision to put Shinseki, a military man who became a darling of Democrats after he famously clashed with the Bush White House over the war in Iraq, in charge of an agency that is essentially a health service organization. Some suggest the appointment was more symbolic than substantive.
“Was Shinseki the best manager available to be the leader of Veterans Affairs, or was his appointment a not-so-subtle rebuke of the Bush administration?” asked Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University who advised former Bush on military affairs.
“I think he was a good man,” Feaver said, “but if you look at his record as chief of staff you would not say that he had been a virtuoso manager.”
Shinseki was appointed Army chief of staff under President Bill Clinton, in large part because he had a vision for remaking the Army into a lighter, more agile force. But he was only partly successful, military experts say. Under Bush, he clashed often with Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, not only over the war but also over weapons systems and troop strength.
At Veterans Affairs, he was presented with a range of management challenges, from tackling the issue of homelessness among veterans to distributing thousands of checks for educational benefits under the new G.I. bill - an effort that was at first fraught with backlogs and delays. Then, as now, the White House sent in a fix-it man to correct the problems.
Shinseki has spent much of the last five years in relative obscurity, out of the kind of limelight that is often reserved for other Cabinet secretaries, like the secretary of state, the secretary of defense or the attorney general.
But the current scandal has thrust him into the public headlines, much the way Kathleen Sebelius, the former secretary of health and human services, became a household name during the botched rollout of the HealthCare.gov website. Sebelius resisted calls for her resignation for months, then stepped down in April.
Like Sebelius, Shinseki has even been mocked by late-night comedians. On “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart made fun of Shinseki’s assertion that he was “mad as hell” over the hospital allegations.
“Your ’mad as hell’ face looks a lot like your ’Oh, we’re out of orange juice’ face,” Stewart said.