The ongoing dispute between Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and a House committee over an alleged sexual assault at a VA facility took an explosive turn Friday with a whistleblower's charge that department senior leadership had sought dirt on the woman who made the complaint.
In a statement, the House Veterans Affairs Committee said it had "received details from an individual with knowledge of decision making by senior VA leaders that shows they attempted to gather damaging information" on Navy Reserve Lt. Andrea Goldstein, a committee staffer who works on women veterans issues.
The statement added that VA leadership also "may have improperly utilized government time and resources" in an effort to impugn Goldstein's integrity. If proven, the charge could put Wilkie's job on the line.
The Committee was seeking "to determine to what extent VA leaders attempted to tarnish a staff member's character and spread false information about her past in retaliation for her reporting of a sexual assault" at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center last September, the statement said.
Wilkie vehemently denied personal involvement in any effort to tarnish Goldstein's reputation in a statement to ProPublica, the prize-winning investigative journalism nonprofit that first reported the claims.
ProPublica reported that it had obtained the whistleblower's written complaint and also had information from a former senior official who alleged that Wilkie himself had collected damaging information on Goldstein and had suggested to aides using it to discredit her.
In his statement to ProPublica, Wilkie, a colonel in the Air Force Reserves, said "I never would do that to a fellow officer," meaning Goldstein. "It is a breach of honor."
At a National Press Club news conference Wednesday, Wilkie said it was "categorically untrue" that his firing of VA Deputy Secretary James Byrne was related to the Goldstein case, but was vague on his reasons for the abrupt dismissal.
Wilkie said Byrne had failed to jell with the VA leadership team and "it was in the best interests of the organization" to remove him from the No. 2 post at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, and other Democrats on the Committee have vigorously defended Goldstein.
She alleged that an individual she believed to be another veteran rubbed up against her and made lewd suggestions at the Washington VA hospital last September.
The office of VA Inspector General Michael Missal and the Justice Department investigated the complaint and later closed the case due to lack of evidence.
The investigation found that security cameras in the area where Goldstein said she was assaulted were not working that day.
After the case was closed, Wilkie wrote to Takano on Jan 16: "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's letter drew a rebuke from Missal, who said he had specifically warned both Byrne and VA Chief of Staff Pamela Powers not to call the complaint "unsubstantiated" because the case was closed.
"Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the Department that the allegations were unsubstantiated," Missal said in a letter to Wilkie. "Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean that the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated."
At his news conference Wednesday, Wilkie said he was looking to re-examine the Goldstein case.
"I’m not satisfied with the resolution," he said. "I have to know, Ms. Goldstein has to know, our women veterans have to know our facilities are safe. We’re going to make a renewed push to get answers.”
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.