President Donald Trump has picked a controversial White House adviser and former beer company executive to head a mental health commission at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The VA announced Tuesday that Trump had named Jake Leinenkugel, a White House political appointee and adviser on veterans issues, to head the VA's "Creating Options for Veterans' Expedited Recovery Commission," or COVER.
The announcement was made by Acting VA Secretary Peter O'Rourke, himself a lightning rod for criticism from the VA's Inspector General and House and Senate Democrats over allegations of political infighting at the VA.
Robert Wilkie, the former under secretary for personnel and readiness at the Pentagon, was confirmed by the Senate on Monday to become the next VA secretary but has yet to be sworn in.
In a statement, O'Rourke said Leinenkugel "has been an ambassador for change at VA, working to implement President Trump's policies throughout the department over the past year and a half. As leader of this important new commission, Jake will continue to advocate for better care and services for his fellow veterans."
The VA said COVER was set up to review the "evidence-based therapy treatment model" used by the VA and also to examine other methods used outside the department.
Leinenkugel, who served six years in the Marine Corps and left with the rank of captain, formerly ran the family's "Leinenkugels" beer company in Wisconsin.
He came under fire from veterans service organizations (VSOs) in February over leaks of his December email exchanges with Trump administration political appointee Camilo Sandoval, a former Trump campaign worker who was then at the Veterans Health Administration.
The emails were first reported by The Washington Post and later obtained by Military.com.
In the email exchanges, Leinenkugel and Sandoval appeared to be plotting the ouster of then-VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin, who eventually was fired by Trump in March.
Leinenkugel said in a list of "solutions" for the VA's problems that Shulkin should be "put on notice to exit" once other legislative priorities were passed.
Leinenkugel also targeted then-VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman, the No. 2 official at the agency, saying that Bowman "doesn't trust the current slate of political staff" at the VA.
In a statement at the time, Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, defended Bowman, a former majority staff director for the committee and 30-year Marine Corps veteran.
"Tom Bowman is a veteran and a patriot, a public servant and a good man. If this is true, it will be a mistake, and I am deeply disappointed in the president," Isakson said. "Veterans will suffer because of this decision if it's true."
Bowman retired in May. Sandoval, the former data operations officer for the Trump campaign, is now the acting chief information officer, the top technology post at the VA.
In the floor debate before the Senate confirmed Wilkie by a vote of 86-9, Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana, the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, warned that Wilkie would have to face the ongoing political turmoil at the VA.
Tester, who voted in favor of Wilkie, said, "We've got political forces at play inside the VA. That's very unfortunate. When Mr. Wilkie becomes secretary, he has to see that this stops."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.