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Takano calls on Wilkie, senior VA staff to resign following IG report on sex assault at VA hospital

U.S. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., questions VA Secretary Robert Wilkie during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 19, 2018.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

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

WASHINGTON — Rep. Mark Takano on Thursday called on Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and his senior staff to resign immediately after a federal watchdog’s report found they campaigned to discredit a Navy officer who said she was sexually assaulted at a VA hospital.

“As I have said before, VA requires cultural change to put an end to sexual harassment and assault at VA facilities — that change starts at the top,” said Takano, D-Calif., chairman of House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “It is clear to me that Secretary Wilkie is not up to that task. He has lost the trust and confidence of all those he is charged to serve.”

In September 2019, Andrea Goldstein, an adviser on female veterans’ issues for the House VA committee 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. The contractor is still employed at the Washington DC VA Medical Center, according to an IG spokesman.

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On Thursday, the VA inspector general released a report that found Wilkie and his staff questioned Goldstein’s credibility and tried to portray her as a serial accuser of dubious claims and ascribing her motives to a Democratic conspiracy to smear the VA.

The tone of Wilkie and the VA senior staff set the stage for a failure to address issues with the safety of women at VA hospitals, investigators found. The secretary and his top officials also refused to fully cooperate with the investigation, refusing a second round of interviews.

“In early 2019, VA's own research found that at least one in four women veterans experience sexual or gender harassment at VA. Instead of working with me to address an underlying problem at the DC VAMC from the start, Secretary Wilkie and the senior-most officials at VA went out of their way to raise suspicions and cast speculation and doubt about Andrea and the legitimacy of the whole incident,” Takano said in a prepared statement.

The White House did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

At the time, Wilkie had said Goldstein’s claims were “unsubstantiated,” which an initial IG report determined wasn’t true. Charges were not filed against the alleged assailant, partly because there were no working security cameras.

The incident spurred a public squabble between Wilkie and House Democrats. Jim Byrne, the former VA deputy secretary, said Wilkie became obsessed with the idea that the sexual assault was a ploy by Democrats to make him look bad.

The IG’s report follows the damning report about Fort Hood that showed systemic issues of failed leadership at the base that contributed to a pattern of violence, including sexual harassment, assault and death.

“Never before has our nation’s military or veteran community shied away from the hard battles that must be fought to mold our country into a more perfect union,” Takano said. “The tragedies like the murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen and the toxic environment created at bases like Fort Hood are a call to action and proof that we have much work to do to dismantle a culture where sexual harassment and assault are tolerated.”

Beynon.Steven@Stripes.com
Twitter: @StevenBeynon

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