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Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, at a House Appropriations Committee hearing in March, 2019.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie, at a House Appropriations Committee hearing in March, 2019. (Stars and Stripes)

WASHINGTON — Several major veterans organizations on Wednesday called on President Donald Trump to fire Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie after a federal watchdog report found he and his senior staff mishandled a congressional aide’s claim that she was sexually assaulted at a VA hospital.

“Our organizations 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,” according to a letter from the veterans groups sent to Trump. “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 The American Legion, AMVETS, Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Vietnam Veterans of America.

An investigation by the VA inspector general found Wilkie and senior VA officials ignored problems of sexual harassment at the Washington DC VA Medical Center and “engaged in confrontational messaging” as they tried to discredit the staffer’s credibility by falsely characterizing her complaint as “unsubstantiated.” The staffer, Andrea Goldstein, is an officer in the Navy Reserve and is an adviser on female veterans’ issues for the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs.

“While this troubling report illustrates that several senior VA staff members played a role in the mishandling of this case, the findings make clear that the secretary himself established a defensive posture and made decisions to personally disparage the veteran and circumvent the subsequent [inspector general] investigation,” the letter reads.

The letter seeking Wilkie’s termination follows many veteran organizations in the last several days calling for Wilkie to resign.

The White House declined Wednesday to comment on the letter.

Christina Noel, the VA press secretary, said Wilkie will "continue to lead the department."

“The tone set by Secretary Wilkie 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,” Inspector General Michael Missal concluded in the report.

Wilkie responded to the report by saying it was politically motivated and all the allegations were false.

In September 2019, Goldstein 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.

The letter follows a growing chorus of veteran organizations and more than 20 Democratic lawmakers calling for Wilkie to be removed from office, about a month before he is scheduled to leave the job.

President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in Jan. 20 and he has tapped Denis McDonough to succeed Wilkie.

“Secretary Wilkie has not only been derelict in his duty to combat sexual harassment, but he has been complicit in the continuation of a VA culture that tolerates this epidemic,” Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Saturday in a statement. “He has lost the trust and confidence to serve, and he must immediately resign.”

Beynon.Steven@Stripes.com Twitter: @StevenBeynon

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