Veterans Affairs officials on Tuesday restarted their search for a new executive to lead the department’s benefits operations after the previous nominee withdrew from the confirmation process.

The nomination of Ray Jefferson to be undersecretary for benefits had been stalled since late April, after senators raised concerns about his past work leading the Veterans Employment and Training Service during President Barack Obama’s administration.

The top benefits job has been without a Senate confirmed leader since early 2021. Veterans groups have raised concerns about the vacancy, noting that issues such as the ongoing disability claims backlog and education programs affected by the pandemic have been handled by a series of temporary administrators.

The post oversees all non-medical veterans benefits, delivering about $135 billion in services and payouts annually.

VA officials formally established a new commission on Tuesday to identify potential candidates for the job. In the interim, Senior Advisor to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs Joshua Jacobs has been designated to perform the duties of the Under Secretary for Benefits, starting July 25.

Jefferson formally withdrew his name last week, VA officials said. During his confirmation hearing in April, he outlined his goals for the job, to include reducing the backlog of disability claims and improving transition programs for veterans.

But multiple Republican lawmakers expressed concerns that Jefferson had been accused by subordinates at his Department of Labor post of contract impropriety, including allegations he steered a consulting contract to a personal friend.

The department’s inspector general initially substantiated that allegation, but the office reversed its ruling eight years later and said Jefferson should not have been asked to resign for the perceived infractions.

Jefferson, an Army veteran who lost five fingers in a training accident in 1999, said he spent a significant amount of his own savings to hire a legal team to clear his name “because I have hoped to one day have the privilege of serving our nation again.”

But the questions surrounding his actions were enough for lawmakers to stall his confirmation. Even as other nominees moved ahead in the process, Jefferson remained static for more than two months.

As the department restarts its search for its top benefits official, leaders at VA are also still waiting for a final Senate vote on the White House’s nominee for the department’s top healthcare official.

Dr. Shereef Elnahal was tapped by the White House in March to serve as VA’s undersecretary for health and received a favorable vote from the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee in May.

However, his final confirmation vote has been blocked for weeks by Republican lawmakers with concerns not over his qualifications but instead general objections to President Joe Biden’s personnel choices.

The top VA medical job hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed appointee since January 2017, when Dr. David Shulkin left the post to take over the VA secretary position.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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