WASHINGTON – Billionaire Florida hockey team owner Vincent Viola is known more for his business success and sports deals than his military acumen. But the 1977 West Point graduate, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for Army secretary, has maintained his service ties since leaving active duty.
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While he has steadily built a financial empire — listed 374th on Forbes Magazine's top 400 with a net worth of $1.8 billion — he also has poured money and time into the military academy. Viola was a key donor for the creation of West Point's Combating Terrorism Center and has supported cadet programs.
And as owner of the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers, he has sent the team to West Point for training, and there are several West Point graduates and military veterans working in the front office.
If he is confirmed by the Senate, Viola will take over as civilian head of an Army struggling to recoup and recapitalize after more than 15 years at war. Under current plans, the Army would continue to downsize from a high of about 570,000 at the peak of the Iraq war, to 450,000 by 2019.
Legislation not yet finalized for the next budget year would stall that drawdown at 476,000 soldiers, which is a bit higher than the current size of about 470,000.
As secretary, Viola would be responsible for all management, budget, acquisition, personnel and base issues for a vast network of about 150 permanent installations around the world. Army soldiers are deployed in about 140 countries.
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Viola would replace Eric Fanning, who became secretary this year after spending the last eight years in various leadership positions across the Army, Navy, Air Force and Defense Department, including acting secretary of two services and chief of staff for Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Fanning's tenure gave him extensive experience navigating the enormous and complicated Pentagon administrative and fiscal infrastructure — a key challenge for any successor.
A Brooklyn native, Viola paid $250 million for the Florida Panthers and is a past chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange.
He is founder of several businesses, including Virtu Financial, an electronic trading firm. Viola has a stake in the company worth $1.5 billion, based on figures the firm sent in April to regulators.
Virtu is a so-called market maker, acting as a middle man selling stocks and other assets to people who want to buy them and buying from people who want to sell.
The company operates in the somewhat controversial high-speed trading industry in which firms use super-fast computers and algorithms to spot fleeting opportunities in stock and bond markets. The practice accounts for most stock trading during the day. Advocates say it provides more trading opportunities. Critics say it gives an unfair advantage to a few firms, and could lead to more spikes and plunges in prices.
In a statement Monday, President-elect Donald Trump praised Viola, whose father came to the U.S. from Italy, as "living proof of the American dream" and someone who has "long been engaged with national security issues."
Viola's was the first member of his family to attend college. He trained as an Airborne Ranger infantry officer and served in the 101st Airborne Division. He is a 1983 graduate of New York Law School.
Associated Press Writer Bernard Condon in New York contributed to this report.