VA official out over vet deaths scandal – but is it more 'damage control'?
Veterans Affairs Undersecretary Robert Petzel, MD testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, May 15, 2014.AP
The Obama administration, battling to tamp down yet another scandal, announced the resignation Friday afternoon of a top Veterans Affairs official amid mounting questions over patient deaths possibly tied to delayed care.
But as with prior controversies, the administration's response, critics say, is not nearly aggressive enough. The official said to be resigning already was planning to retire. And once again, the president is being accused of relying on political allies to lead internal reviews, without directly firing anyone.
The department initially placed a few officials on leave after reports emerged that up to 40 patients died waiting for care at a Phoenix facility. On Friday, as pressure mounted, the administration announced the resignation of the top VA health official, Under Secretary for Health Robert Petzel -- a day after that official testified alongside VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
"I am committed to strengthening veterans' trust and confidence in their VA healthcare system," Shinseki said in a statement.
But Petzel, according to a VA press release last year, already was planning to retire in 2014 -- and Obama already had nominated a successor days earlier.
Republicans swiftly cast the response as yet another example of how the administration is light-handed in its response to severe allegations. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus said in response to the "resignation" that it's time for a full-fledged probe.
"Despite the White House's attempts to hide behind talking points and an investigation being led by a political insider, this is more proof that there are a lot of unanswered questions and an independent investigation is necessary," he said in a statement.
The same thing happened after the scandal over IRS targeting of political groups broke. Acting IRS Commissioner Steven Miller resigned, but a source said he was planning to leave the post anyway.
The pattern is fueling frustration that, on several fronts, the administration has been able to deflect accusations of wrongdoing, often turning the outrage back on lawmakers and accusing them of playing political games.
Congress, and the public, have shown patience wearing thin.
Recent calls for an independent investigation on the VA scandal reflect doubts that the VA and a White House official tapped to handle a review can be objective.
The House also recently established a select committee to investigate the Benghazi terror attacks. And Republicans have called for a special prosecutor to investigate the IRS targeting.
Recent Fox News polling shows trust in the federal government at a meager 37 percent. And on specific scandals, most consider the recent controversies to be serious.
According to one Fox News poll, 78 percent of those surveyed considered Benghazi serious, with 52 percent saying they consider it very serious. The numbers were slightly lower when people were asked about the IRS scandal.
A separate poll also showed 54 percent of voters think the administration has been deceitful about the events surrounding Benghazi.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who has called for Shinseki's resignation, said Friday that Petzel's departure is "not a surprise" since he was scheduled to retire, and suggested it was not enough.
"He should not shoulder the blame for VA's failures," Moran said. "Rather than the VA focusing on damage control, action should be taken immediately to change the bureaucratic culture of mediocrity at the VA and ensure the highest quality and most timely care for our nation's heroes."
American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger said, "This move by VA is not a corrective action, but a continuation of business as usual. Dr. Petzel was already scheduled to retire this year, so his resignation now really won’t make that much of a difference.
"Meanwhile, Secretary Shinseki and Under Secretary Hickey remain on the job. They are both part of VA's leadership problem, and we want them to resign as soon as possible. This isn't personal. VA needs a fundamental shift in leadership if it is to defeat its systemic lack of accountability."
A senior VA official explained to Fox News that Petzel was supposed to serve in his position until the Senate confirms his successor, a process that could drag on for months.
The official said Shinseki "requested and received" Petzel's resignation after he listened to hours of testimony on Thursday from watchdog and veteran groups.
"The president and Secretary Shinseki take the allegations around misconduct very seriously, and Secretary Shinseki has committed to taking appropriate actions based on the findings of the independent VA Office of Inspector General investigation," White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said in a statement.