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Federal watchdog says Wilkie’s conduct was ‘unprofessional’ in handling sexual assault claim at VA hospital

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie testifies during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 26, 2018.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 10, 2020

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and other agency officials questioned the credibility of a Navy officer who said she was sexually assaulted at a VA hospital instead of taking action to create a safe environment for women, according to a federal watchdog report released Thursday. 

“The response of Secretary Wilkie and senior VA officials to the veteran’s complaint of sexual assault was troubling. Scrutinizing the veteran’s background is contrary to VA’s stated goal to serve veterans with respect,” VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal said in a statement about the report.

In September 2019, Andrea Goldstein, an adviser on female veterans’ issues for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and a Navy Reserve officer, said she was assaulted in the cafeteria of the VA hospital in Washington, D.C. A male contractor for the VA slammed his body against hers and made sexually suggestive comments, she said.

No charges were filed, partly because security cameras did not capture the attack, according to a January report from VA’s inspector general. However, the report did not dismiss Goldstein’s claim and it spurred a public confrontation between VA officials and House Democrats.

In response to the assault claim and results from the initial report, Wilkie wrote a letter in January to Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the VA committee, arguing Takano and his staff made “unsubstantiated” comments, suggesting Goldstein’s attack was fabricated.

Jim Byrne, the former deputy secretary, has said he was fired, in part, for not going along with a conspiracy to dig up dirt on Goldstein. In the report released Thursday, the IG said it could not substantiate whether Wilkie investigated or directed others to investigate Goldstein’s background in an effort to find information to damage her credibility.

The IG said Wilkie’s conduct was “at minimum unprofessional and at worst provided the basis for senior officials to put out information to national reporters to question the credibility and background of the veteran who filed the sexual assault complaint.” Investigators noted this was not a criminal investigation, yet Wilkie offered a statement of vindication.

“Having failed to prove the false allegations that served as the basis for this investigation, the IG shifted its focus to policing and critiquing confidential internal deliberations among VA staff,” Wilkie said in a statement.

Yet, the federal watchdog found that senior VA officials did not take the assault seriously and instead launched an attack as if the assault was an allegation against the department. This distracted the VA from addressing the problem that agency hospitals are not always welcoming to women.

“The tone set by Secretary Wilkie appears to have influenced aspects of the initial VA police investigation and the conduct of other VA employees,” the IG report concluded.

In May 2019, the same contractor who allegedly assaulted Goldstein was accused of sexually harassing a VA employee, according to the report. Investigators also discovered VA officials were aware of “persistent” problems reported by women at the Washington, D.C. hospital but did not ensure facility leaders were addressing the issues.

According to the IG, the contractor is still employed by VA as of October. However, the service where the contractor works has been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was unclear Thursday whether the medical director, Michael Heimall, will allow the contractor to continue working at the hospital.

The IG’s investigation included interviews with 65 individuals. Yet it was hindered by the refusal of several senior VA officials to cooperate with requests for follow-up interviews to clarify and resolve conflicts that arose when additional information was gathered after their initial interviews.

The individuals refusing to cooperate include Wilkie, Acting Deputy Secretary Pamela Powers, Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs James Hutton, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Curtis Cashour.

“These refusals were made despite the OIG’s commitment to keep follow-up interviews as short as possible and to provide flexible times and locations,” the report found. “Secretary Wilkie and Ms. Powers asked the OIG to provide written questions so they could consider whether to respond. This approach was not consistent with the OIG’s investigative practices.”

The report included comments from Byrne who said Wilkie believed Goldstein’s attack was a conspiracy launched by the Democratic Party.

“Secretary Wilkie speculated in an email that Chairman Takano was ‘laying the grounds for a spectacle,’” the report states. “Senior officials’ involvement created pressure on VA police and focused their attention on the veteran herself.”

VA police ran a background check on Goldstein, a move that police considered unusual, according to the IG report. Goldstein’s background check was conducted two days before one was run on the contractor accused of sexual assault.

VA officials said Goldstein has a history of making sexual harassment and assault complaints.

“Six senior officials testified they heard the secretary [Wilkie] state that the veteran [Goldstein] who filed the sexual assault complaint had done something like this before (or words to that effect) — implying her complaints were unfounded,” the report states.

Byrne told investigators that Wilkie talked with Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, to confirm the information of Goldstein’s previous accusations, hoping to show a history of complaints. Goldstein and Crenshaw served together in the Navy. The IG was not able to confirm the extent of Crenshaw’s involvement, partly because Wilkie refused a follow-up interview with investigators. Crenshaw also refused an interview.

In Wilkie’s letter to Takano, he blasted the House lawmaker and his staff for raising “unsubstantiated claims” that “could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.”

Weeks later, Wilkie retracted the statement and apologized when asked about it.

Investigators found the language in the letter was “deliberate and consistent with VA senior officials’ proposed messaging on the topic as shown by some VA senior officials’ emails at the time.”

The VA’s senior attorney tried to intervene and proposed alternate language to avoid “deterring women veterans from coming forward” by “overly vilifying” the veteran, the IG report states.

Beynon.Steven@Stripes.com
Twitter: @StevenBeynon

 

Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General Michael Missal listens during a hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform's Government Operations subcommittee on Capitol Hill, June 20, 2019.
JOE GROMELSKI/STARS AND STRIPES