Leading VSOs Called for VA Secretary’s Removal

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WASHINGTON — VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and other high-ranking VA officials actively worked to discredit the complainant in a sexual assault investigation at the DC VA Medical Center, according to a recent VA Office of Inspector General report.

The report released last month suggests that the high-profile nature of the incident and the identity of the complainant inspired Wilkie and others to not only politicize the case but to have a detrimental influence on the hospital’s response.

In September 2019, Andrea Goldstein, a reserve Navy intelligence officer and the lead staff member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Women Veteran’s Task Force, said she was groped and propositioned by an unknown man in the front atrium of the DCVAMC. That man would eventually be identified as a contractor employed by VA.

“Several employees witnessed the assault and said nothing,” Goldstein said in a press conference the following day. “In addition, I reported the incident to multiple employees: a worker at the information desk, the patient advocate and a doctor before police were called.” 

Following an investigation into the incident, the OIG announced that it did not have sufficient evidence to press charges.

The following day, Wilkie sent a letter to the House VA Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif) and to numerous press outlets referring to Goldstein’s claims as “unsubstantiated” and said her complaint could deter veterans from seeking care at the facility. That letter resulted in an immediate rebuke from VA Inspector General Mark Missal, who wrote to Wilkie, maintaining that the lack of criminal charges did not mean the allegation was unsubstantiated. 

“Despite the apparent implication of your letter, no one should be discouraged from reporting an alleged crime to the OIG,” Missal wrote. 

Shortly afterward, articles appeared in the press that Wilkie had personally sought information on Goldstein in an attempt to discredit her. Takano requested the OIG open an investigation into those allegations, which ended up being at least partially confirmed by this latest report. 

While the OIG could not directly substantiate that Wilkie investigated Goldstein or asked others to do so, VA staff testified that he was in possession of information about Goldstein that was not publicly available, including information that may have been obtained from her DoD files. Of particular interest to Wilkie, according to testimony from VA staff, was the possibility that Goldstein had filed previous sexual harassment complaints during her military career.

According to the report, VA Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs Curtis Cashour went so far as to suggest to a journalist, “You may want to look into—see—if she’s done this sort of thing in the past.” 

Cashour told OIG investigators the tip was based on communications he’d had with Wilkie in which the VA secretary stated the veteran had made similar complaints in the past. Cashour said he was not ordered by Wilkie to make the suggestion to the journalist.

One possible source of information about Goldstein’s military background might have been Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX). In a Dec. 4, 2019 email to Pamela Powers, then VA chief of staff, who has since been promoted to acting deputy secretary, and VA Assistant Secretary Brooks Tucker, Wilkie wrote, “Ask me in the morning what Congressman Crenshaw said about the Takano staffer whose glamour shot was in the New York Times.” 

Asked about the email, Wilkie told OIG investigators that the only information imparted by Crenshaw was that the congressman had served with Goldstein in the Navy. Asked why such innocuous information would “be sufficiently remarkable to merit an email about passing that mention along,” Wilkie said he couldn’t remember. 

Previous Allegations?

Powers, Tucker and others testified, however, that Wilkie related a conversation with Crenshaw where the Texas legislator told Wilkie that Goldstien had made previous sexual assault allegations while in the Navy.

This was also confirmed by Jim Byrne, former VA deputy secretary, whom Powers went on to replace. While his unexpected removal in February 2020 was cause at the time for speculation, it wasn’t until this fall that Byrne told reporters that he was fired because he would not go along with plans to discredit Goldstein. Byrne has also said that Wilkie met with Crenshaw to get information on Goldstein.

Though investigators found Wilkie’s involvement and actions deeply concerning and inappropriate, they could not label them illegal. 

“While unprofessional and disparaging, the OIG identified no violation of law, regulation or policy in connection to the statements reported to have been made by Secretary Wilkie,” the report concludes. 

The extreme interest of VA leaders had a trickle-down effect on the sexual harassment investigation itself, causing VA police to act in ways they would not usually, according to the OIG.

“Senior officials’ involvement created pressure on VA police and focused their attention on the veteran herself,” the report states. “VA police interviewed by OIG investigators characterized an unusual level of engagement by VA senior officials in an ongoing criminal investigation.” 

According to testimony from VA police, VA leaders visited the medical center the week following the incident to view available video footage. One of the officials was reported as commenting to police that the veterans may have “made a complaint similar to this before.” 

During the video review, VA police ran a background check on Goldstein and circulated the results, something that multiple VA police officers found unusual. This happened two days before a background check was run on the contractor accused of sexual assault.

If they had focused on the alleged perpetrator instead of Goldstein, they would have found a number of red flags, including that the contractor had a criminal history and had been accused of sexual harassment by a medical center employee four months before Goldstein reported being assaulted.  

“Had VA leaders been aware of or considered this information, they may have been prompted to consider whether the previous harassment complaint was properly handled and whether the two incidents taken together revealed a potential pattern of unacceptable behavior that required additional action,” the report notes.

When asked during his OIG interview about VA conducting an administrative investigation into the matter, Wilkie responded, “Absolutely not. They’re accusing me of running an independent investigation…And I don’t have [the criminal] report from the [OIG].” 

Powers told OIG investigators that Wilkie and VA leaders believed they were facing a “no-win situation” when it came to conducting an administrative investigation.

“Can we do another investigation? Sure,” she said. “But guess what will be on the front page of the paper: that we’re doing another investigation to try and discredit Goldstein, even though that’s completely false.” 

According to the OIG report, this fear about poor media coverage did not seem to take into account that the DCVAMC already had enough information about the contractor that could have prompted corrective action without the need to launch an investigation. Missal even specifically suggested to Wilkie and other VA leaders that they check VA police files on the contractor. 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the contractor does not have regular access to the facility. The OIG has informed the medical center that the individual may lack the appropriate credentials and background check to allow physical access to the building, which was concerning considering his criminal history. According to the report, the medical center director responded with an action plan to address the issue before allowing the contractor to return to the facility after the pandemic has subsided. The OIG will continue to track the situation. 

Wilkie’s actions as laid out in the report prompted the six leading veterans service organizations (VSO) to send a joint letter to President Donald Trump calling for the VA secretary’s removal. 

“We have concluded that as a result of the Secretary’s personal actions in this matter he no longer has the trust or confidence of America’s veterans and should be removed,” the VSO leaders wrote. “This is a tremendous breach of trust among veterans and Secretary Wilkie must be held accountable. His actions not only threaten to deter veterans from seeking care at VA, but also undermine the efforts of VA staff who have been working to bring an end to sexual harassment throughout the department.” 

The letter was signed by representatives of the American Legion, AMVETS, Disable American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Vietnam Veterans of America.