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Davis Fills Slot for Veterans

State: The troubled agency's acting leader is made permanent after 18 months on the job.


SACRAMENTO — Filling a Cabinet-level position that had been vacant for 18 months, Gov. Gray Davis on Wednesday appointed Bruce Thiesen, temporary secretary of the troubled Department of Veterans Affairs, as permanent secretary.

Thiesen has occupied the post on an interim basis since May 2000, when Secretary Tomas Alvarado resigned after the death at the Barstow Veterans Home of a World War II infantry sergeant who choked on his lunch.

Subject to Senate confirmation, Thiesen, 60, of Elk Grove, will be paid $131,412 a year.

Thiesen, an enlisted member of the Army in the early 1960s and national commander of the American Legion in 1993-94, was one of Davis' earliest appointees. The governor named him deputy secretary of operations for Veterans Affairs in January 1999.

In a brief interview, Thiesen acknowledged that the veterans department may be one of the most challenging in state government to manage. He said he would do his best to serve veterans' interests, especially the emerging crop of younger vets in California.

"We want to make sure we're able to serve them just as we've served their [predecessors]," Thiesen said.

Thiesen is a native of the San Joaquin Valley hamlet of Kingsburg. He managed a table grape labor contracting company and was an agricultural management consultant for 35 years before his appointment to the veterans department.

He will manage the agency at a particularly critical time. The Barstow vets home has lost its accreditation, the department has failed to collect millions that it is owed, its Cal-Vet loan program has come under criticism for inefficiency, and its budget likely will be reduced as the state's economy shrinks.

At the same time, the department has been described as failing to demonstrate leadership for California veterans.

For many vets and legislators, the Barstow facility and the death of the elderly veteran, Paul Stevens, have come to symbolize the troubles of the department.

In Stevens' case, administrators at the veterans home failed to make a required timely report of his death, which they attributed to a heart attack. However, a coroner's investigation confirmed a treating physician's report that Stevens gagged to death on a chunk of broccoli.

The incident highlighted years of allegations that patients at Barstow had received substandard care at its nursing home facility. Although the facility kept its nursing home license, it underwent a series of state and federal investigations that resulted in the loss of the home's certification and, consequently, its federal funds.

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