VA Scandal Has Oregon Ties
Joan Mooney, top aide to Eric Shinseki and former chief of staff to US Rep. Darlene Hooley, resigns June 20 after grilling by House Committee on Veterans Affairs
The ongoing and expanding national scandal over veterans’ care has claimed yet another victim. This time it was not another veteran who died while lost on a secret wait list; but rather a high-ranking member of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki’s immediate staff. On June 20, Joan Mooney, Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs, quietly announced her “retirement” following a withering barrage last month in front of a Congressional committee seeking answers to the recently released VA Inspector’s General interim report that confirmed the worst fears of those looking into VA practices around the nation, including Oregon.
The interim report confirmed the existence of “multiple types of scheduling practices that are not in compliance with VHA policy.” The report indicated these preliminary findings may be the basis for allegations of creating ‘secret wait lists’ in Phoenix and elsewhere. President Obama called such behavior by the VA, if proven true, “dishonorable” and “disgraceful.” The report left Oregon’s two Democratic US Senators “flabbergasted.” Yet with Oregon ranking among the worst states in terms of veterans’ wait times for initial appointments, Senators Wyden’s and Merkley’s response was to ask Congress for more money.
Secretary Shinseki eventually heeded the call from both sides of the aisle to step down, culminating in his own resignation May 30. But heads continue to roll at the VA, when senior staffers such as Mooney were called before an irate Congress that was in no mood for evasive answers or excuses lacking credibility. Mooney’s fate may have been sealed when she squared off with Rep. Jeff Miller (R-FL), Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, on May 28 in a widely viewed exchange that left Miller furious and Mooney stammering for answers.
The fireworks in May were not an aberration, as Mooney had been the focus of criticism from members of Congress for some time. In September 2013, a member of the same House Committee on Veterans Affairs accused Mooney’s Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs (OCLA) of using “a veneer of incompetency to mask a process of systematically covering up information that’s embarrassing to the Veterans Administration.” Rather than accept Mooney’s responses as the product of bureaucratic incompetency, the committee member gave Mooney the ultimate backhanded compliment when he bluntly told her, “You are not what you appear to be today – a bumbling idiot.”
The Oregon Connection
Most Americans, including most Oregonians, likely have never heard of Joan Mooney, since the veteran political staffer has worked behind the scenes for most of her 20-year political career. For 12 years Mooney served as chief of staff for Democrat Darlene Hooley, who represented Oregon’s 5th Congressional District from 1997 through 2008. When Hooley announced she would not seek reelection in 2008, Mooney needed a new job and she found one in Washington D.C.
At the time, Mooney was known as Joan Evans, as she had married Paul Evans in February 2005 after meeting him in late summer 2004 when Evans was in the process of ending his first marriage. In 2007 Paul Evans was tapped to serve as Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski’s senior policy advisor for military and veterans affairs. As the governor’s point man on veterans care in Oregon, Evans served as Chairman of the Governor’s Veterans Services Task Force. While Paul Evans may have been Oregon’s top policy person on veterans’ affairs, his wife soon upstaged him at the national level.
On June 23, 2009, Joan M. Evans was nominated by President Obama to serve as Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs (OCLA) at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Mooney’s (then Evans) nomination was confirmed by the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on August 7, 2009 and she was sworn in by VA Secretary Eric K. Shinseki on August 10, 2009. At her swearing in, Evans declared and promised:
“I am humbled and honored to be chosen for this position and look forward to joining President Obama and Secretary Shinseki in their effort to transform VA into a 21st century organization that is Veteran-centric, results-driven, and forward looking […] My mission will be to ensure the Secretary and VA leadership as well as members of the Senate and House of Representatives and the authorizing and appropriating Committees have what they need to perform their respective roles efficiently and effectively.”
Five years later, members of Congress were publicly calling her a “bumbling idiot” who intentionally or incompetently failed to provide members of Congress with what they need to get to the bottom of the “dishonorable” and “disgraceful” practices of the Veterans Administration. Understandably, Mooney probably decided she had served as the agency’s whipping girl long enough, especially since Shinseki was no longer around to absorb the political hits. Effective June 20, 2014, Mooney quietly retired from service, three weeks after her boss was effectively pushed out of the VA Secretary position.
The VA Power Couple
Few Oregonians realized that in 2009, the state boasted arguably America’s greatest power couple on veterans’ affairs, with Paul Evans serving as Oregon’s top policy advisor and Joan Evans rising to become the official link between Congress and the VA. However, 2010 would not be so enjoyable for the couple. By December 2010 Paul Evans was finalizing his second divorce in six years – this time from Joan Evans. Moreover, he would not continue in his role as the governor’s top veterans’ advisor when John Kitzhaber took office in January 2011. Today Paul Evans teaches speech communication at a local community college. After a failed bid for the Oregon senate in 2006, Evans is making another run at the legislature as the 2014 Democratic candidate in House District 20 (West Salem-Independence-Monmouth).
After their 2010 divorce, Joan Evans became Joan Mooney once again and remained in her Alexandria, Virginia home while serving as Shinseki’s top aide to Congress until the two were shown the door through resignation and retirement. It’s not clear who at this point will clean up the VA mess left behind in Oregon and across the nation. There will likely be more investigations, hearings, reports, recriminations and hand-wringing from the executive and legislative branches. For Joan Mooney, former chief-of-staff to Darlene Hooley and ex-wife of Oregon’s chief of veterans’ policy, she can take comfort in knowing it will not be her featured on C-SPAN or network news roasting over a Congressional committee’s grill.