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The State

State Veterans Agency to Lose 3rd Secretary

Politics: Davis must name his fourth appointee in as many years because VA chief Bruce Thiesen was not confirmed by Senate amid ongoing problems.

September 07, 2002|CARL INGRAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Bruce Thiesen, the man Gov. Gray Davis appointed 10 months ago to head the embattled Department of Veterans Affairs, must leave the post in November on orders of the state Senate.

Davis, who calls himself California's "most veteran-friendly" governor, now must find his fourth secretary of Veterans Affairs in as many years.

Thiesen is being forced to vacate the $131,412-a-year job because he can serve for only one year without Senate confirmation.

His departure was sealed Sunday when the Legislature adjourned its 2002 session without the Senate approving him or even scheduling a confirmation hearing.

Davis, who had been urged by Senate leader John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) in December to withdraw Thiesen's nomination, praised Thiesen this week on doing a "fine job" and lashed at the Senate for denying him confirmation.

"Secretary Thiesen deserves more respect and appreciation than the state Senate has shown him," Davis said.

He credited Thiesen with restoring the accreditation of the state-run veterans home in Barstow and opening a third residence for aging and ailing vets, in Chula Vista.

But in a brief interview, Burton said long-running problems at the department either failed to improve or worsened under Thiesen. "The administration is screwed up," he said.

Thiesen, a farm labor contractor in the San Joaquin Valley before he joined the Davis administration in 1999, did not respond to a reporter's request for comment.

In addition to operating the veterans homes, the department provides benefits to vets, including the low-cost farm and home loan program, life and disability insurance programs, and services to disabled veterans.

But in the last few years, investigations by several government agencies and the Senate have uncovered problems and bureaucratic blunders.

They included the death of an elderly vet in Barstow who choked to death on his lunch and the failure to know how much the department is owed by the federal government in reimbursements.

The department was forced to make a surprise $3-million cutback in services at the veterans home in Yountville because of its failure to collect outstanding federal payments.

At the same time, infighting among top managers has disrupted programs and undercut employee morale.

Officials were accused of firing employees and replacing them with their friends.

Women complained of sexual harassment by a former director, but charges were never filed.

Thiesen, a former state and national commander of the American Legion, had held the post of temporary secretary for 18 months after the forced resignation of Tomas Alvarado in 2000.

Davis' first secretary of veterans affairs was James R. Ramos, who resigned after five months.

Davis promoted Thiesen to permanent secretary in November.

Scarcely a month after Thiesen's appointment, Burton urged Davis to withdraw him and nominate someone else.

Under Thiesen, Burton said, chronic problems had "persisted and even worsened."

Fellow Democrats and a Republican later sent a similar letter to Davis.

Davis expressed confidence in Thiesen and refused to abandon his nominee.

Burton said this week, however, that the governor did not fight hard for Senate approval.

Meantime, representatives of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars declined to comment on whether they believed Thiesen was fairly treated by the Senate. But they made clear their dissatisfaction with his performance.

VFW lobbyist John Canfield said Thiesen would have been "embarrassed if a confirmation hearing had been held because the department at that time had not done anything that was really noteworthy."

He said, "I really feel that Bruce was not the right man for the job."

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