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VA's deputy secretary fired; report cites frustration over agency’s handling of sex assault investigation

James Byrne, then the VA's general counsel, at a Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee hearing in May, 2019.

STARS AND STRIPES

By STEVE BEYNON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 3, 2020

WASHINGTON — James Byrne, the deputy secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, was fired Monday after holding the post for less than five months.  

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he terminated Byrne due to a loss in confidence in him. 

“Today, I dismissed VA Deputy Secretary James Byrne due to loss of confidence in Mr. Byrne’s ability to carry out his duties,” Wilkie said in the statement. “This decision is effective immediately.”

Byrne, 55, is a former Marine infantry officer. He was sworn in Sept. 16 as deputy secretary and previously served as the department’s general counsel, leading the VA’s legal team, for about two years. Byrne was confirmed as deputy secretary by the Senate in a vote of 81-11. The VA has not yet named a deputy secretary to replace him. 

The VA’s top leadership has been in turmoil in recent years. President Donald Trump’s administration has gone through four deputy secretaries at the VA, with two of them in temporary acting positions. The Obama, Bush and Clinton administrations all had two deputy VA secretaries across both of their terms.

The previous deputy secretary, Thomas Bowman, retired in June 2018 after being passed over twice for the position of acting secretary. Byrne took over as the VA’s second in command in August 2018, but he wasn’t confirmed until a year later.

The news outlet Axios, citing three unnamed sources, reported that Byrne’s ousting was due to frustration from the White House on how the VA handled an investigation into a claim by Andrea Goldstein, a House staff member who said she was sexually assaulted at the VA hospital in Washington D.C. Goldstein is a member of the Navy Reserve. 

“That is not true. James Byrne’s dismissal has nothing to do with that,” VA spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci wrote in an email. 

The White House and VA declined to comment on the details of Byrne’s termination. Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, said the questions lingering over Byrne’s sudden ousting need to be answered.

“I have many questions about what Deputy Secretary Byrne’s firing means for our veterans and VA as a whole. Deputy Secretary Byrne was confirmed by the Senate — the American people deserve to know why he was dismissed,” Takano said in a statement. “Secretary Wilkie has agreed to meet with me to discuss this leadership change in detail, and I look forward to speaking with him.”

The reported assault in September against Goldstein, the senior policy adviser for Congress’ Women Veterans Task Force, became a call to action for the VA to end harassment of female veterans at their facilities. Federal authorities filed no charges after an investigation, and the case is now considered closed.

Goldstein said she was assaulted Sept. 20 by a man inside the front atrium at the VA hospital. Goldstein told The New York Times that a man slammed her below the waist and told her, “You look like you could use a good time.” 

Wilkie scolded Goldstein and Takano for making “unsubstantiated claims.”

“We believe that VA is a safe place for all veterans to enter and receive care and services, but the unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve,” Wilkie wrote.

Goldstein wrote an article for the website Jezebel, which was posted online Monday shortly before Byrne’s termination became publicly known. The article blasted Wilkie for shrugging off her assault and strongly implying it was a fabrication. 

“He used coded language, but the words still stung,” she wrote. “The secretary of the second largest federal agency knew how his words would resonate. He was implying that a fellow Navy veteran was a liar. He was implying that I was a liar.”

beynon.steven@stripes.com
Twitter: @StevenBeynon

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