The IT principle

When Anthony Principi was sworn in as the new Department of Veterans Affairs secretary, he faced a dilemma. He knew all the great restaurants in San Diego, where he lived, but where was he going to take his Italian uncles to lunch in the nation's capital?

He did his research and found the perfect northern Italian restaurant to fete the clan in honor of his new job — a Cabinet secretary in the Bush administration.

But for Principi, whose hobbies are cooking and gardening, finding the right place to eat is not nearly as big a challenge as fixing the VA's antiquated computer system.

"I am honored — and humbled — by the prospect that 24 million men and women who answered our nation's call to arms may soon look to me to answer their call for the benefits and services they earned in the service of their country," Principi said in his Senate confirmation hearing.

Principi is no stranger to the agency's problems, which include disparate, antiquated systems that take months to process a disability claim and information security holes that leave the agency vulnerable to hackers and inside threats. From 1989 to 1992, he was the deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs, the VA's second-highest position. And from 1992 to 1993, he was the acting secretary of Veterans Affairs.

A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he first saw active duty aboard the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy. He later commanded a river patrol unit in Vietnam's Mekong Delta.

Sitting in his wood-paneled office in front of a crystal vase filled with white flowers, Principi talks about his commitment to veterans and the challenges he faces in putting his arms around a massive agency with endemic information technology problems. "We are beginning to make strides," Principi said.

But he knows full well that there is a long way to go. He must bring the VA into the 21st century quickly because many aging veterans may die before they get the help they are entitled to.

"VA was the leader in IT in the late 1960s. Since that time, we have fallen behind," he said.

With a system that has a spotty record, a history of failure and difficulty staying current with veteran claims and needs, Principi has told his top officials to fast-forward their studies and come up with solutions quickly. A can-do kind of guy, Principi should make significant changes very soon, say those who know him.

"I give him high marks," said Harold Gracey, former VA chief information officer. "He knows the department, and he knows the department's customers. He's a good business-like manager. He drives people to get things done."

And certainly, there will be plenty of things to do. A workaholic, Principi rarely takes a day off and has only been home to San Diego a couple of times since January.

He created an Enterprise Architecture Task Force that is meeting on weekends to draw up a departmentwide IT plan for action by mid-August. Principi often participates, sometimes casually dressed, and he expects others to work hard as well.

His passion for cooking Italian food, especially the pasta recipe he learned from his grandmother, has been put on hold.

And the 50 European olive trees he planted at his home in San Diego are slightly neglected. Although the first crop from the trees, planted two years ago, is ready to be pressed into olive oil this year, Principi said he will not have time to do it.

Instead, he spends most of his time with his laptop. "I can't live without it."The anthony principi file Education: 1967 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy; received his law degree from Seton Hall University in 1975.

Professional experience: Legislative counsel for the Department of the Navy, 1980; VA's assistant deputy administrator for congressional and public affairs from 1983 to 1984; Republican chief counsel and staff director of the Senate Committee on Veterans' Affairs from 1984 to 1988; deputy secretary of Veterans Affairs from 1989 to 1992; acting secretary of Veterans Affairs from 1992 to 1993; senior vice president at Lockheed Martin IMS; partner in the San Diego law firm of Luce, Forward, Hamilton & Scripps LLP; most recently, president of QTC Medical Services Inc., a group of professional companies providing independent medical services.

Family: His wife, Elizabeth, is a partner in a San Diego law firm. They have three children: Anthony, an Air Force captain; Ryan, an Air Force lieutenant; and John, a student at the University of California, Berkeley.

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