The Department of Veterans Affairs' internal watchdog has rebuked VA Secretary Robert Wilkie for suggesting that congressional staffer Andrea Goldstein, a Navy Reserve lieutenant, made "unsubstantiated claims" of groping and harassment at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center last September.
"Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the Department that the allegations were unsubstantiated," VA Inspector General Michael Missal said in a strongly worded letter to Wilkie late Wednesday night.
Missal also cited what he said were Wilkie's "inaccurate characterizations" in claiming vindication for the VA after neither the IG's office nor the Justice Department found enough evidence to support a sex assault or harassment case.
"Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean that the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated," Missal wrote to Wilkie.
He acknowledged telling Wilkie that no charges were being brought, but added that he also discussed the allegations with VA Deputy Secretary James Byrne and Chief of Staff Pamela Powers earlier this week and warned them against drawing the wrong conclusions.
Missal said he "specifically told them that the investigation had been closed without charges and that no other characterization could or should be made regarding the outcome of the investigation."
In closing his letter to Wilkie, Missal said, "I trust that this clarifies this matter and you will ensure that no one is informed that our investigation concluded that the sexual assault allegation at issue was not substantiated."
There was no immediate response from the VA to requests for comment on Missal's letter or to phone calls and emails regarding other questions raised by Wilkie's letter Wednesday to Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee.
In his letter, Wilkie referred to the "steps VA is taking to make women veterans feel more welcome at VA facilities," but went on to assert that Takano and his staff had gone overboard in supporting Goldstein's allegations.
"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. "Even prior to this allegation, VA was conducting education of staff on the proper handling of all forms of harassment. We will continue these efforts."
In statements Wednesday night, Takano and Rep. Julia Brownley, D-California, chairwoman of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Health, charged that Wilkie had questioned the integrity of Goldstein, the senior policy adviser for Congress' Women Veterans Task Force.
"I am aghast that Secretary Wilkie would think it appropriate to call into question allegations of sexual assault raised by one of our nation's veterans," Takano said. "And for VA -- an agency charged with providing trauma-informed care for survivors of sexual harassment and assault -- to itself retraumatize and defame a fellow veteran is disgusting."
Brownley said that Wilkie "should apologize and use this as a teachable moment to be a leader in stopping sexual assault at VA facilities by first and foremost making sure that no one is shamed or shunned for coming forward."
In a statement, Jeremy Butler, chief executive officer of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, charged that Wilkie in his letter to Takano had implied that women coming forward on sexual assault allegations "will cause veterans not to seek care at the VA."
"I commend the VA IG for correcting the record," Butler said. "The allegations made in this case are serious, and we support any veteran who is brave enough to come forward under these circumstances."
In recent years, the VA has repeatedly acknowledged that there is an issue with "veteran-on-veteran" sexual harassment at facilities. VA medical centers nationwide have put up signs and sent out directives warning against improper conduct, catcalls and language.
Last year, a VA survey found that one in four female veterans reported harassment from other veterans at its facilities.
Goldstein first told The New York Times that she was assaulted in the atrium of the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center on Sept. 20. She said a man pushed into her below the waist and said, "You look like you could use a good time."
Later in September, Goldstein and Takano held a news conference in front of the Washington VA hospital to outline her allegations and demand that the VA do more to ensure the safety of female veterans when they seek treatment.
"I do believe my assailant was a veteran," Goldstein said. There were several witnesses to the assault, she said, but added that "they did nothing" to intervene and her assailant escaped.
There also was no immediate response from VA staff, Goldstein said, adding that police were not called until she reported the incident to a doctor at the hospital.
Goldstein, who said she had previously received "timely, high-quality health care, all without co-pays" at the Washington hospital, said, "I will continue to use the facility."
"All veterans, regardless of gender, should have an expectation of safety when they come to the VA for the health care they've earned," Takano said.
"One of our own has experienced a sexual assault right here on this campus," he said. "It's still clear we have work to do" on behalf of two million female veterans.
At the news conference, Goldstein cited the ongoing investigation in declining comment on whether the alleged assault may have been recorded by hospital security cameras.
However, a House aide, speaking on background, said investigators learned that the cameras were not working in the area where Goldstein said the assault took place. "The investigators had witness statements, but they did not have that key piece of evidence," the aide said.
The aide also said that Goldstein is not expected to make any additional statements on the case.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.