Department of Veterans Affairs Inspector General Michael Missal has opened an investigation into allegations that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sought to dig up dirt on a congressional staffer who filed a complaint of sexual assault at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center. Her complaint was ultimately dismissed.
In a letter Thursday to congressional leaders, Missal said he is putting a "high priority" on the investigation into whether Wilkie attempted to discredit Navy Reserve Lt. Andrea Goldstein, who serves on the staff of House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-California.
Missal's investigation, which could put Wilkie's job on the line, was first reported by The Washington Post. It follows an earlier clash with Wilkie over his claim that Goldstein's complaint of being assaulted last September was "unsubstantiated."
On Monday, six Democratic senators led by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, a member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, called on Missal to investigate published reports of a whistleblower's allegation that Wilkie had discussed with aides launching a smear campaign against Goldstein.
The senators' letter to Missal referred to a report earlier this month by ProPublica, the investigative journalism nonprofit, which said it had obtained the whistleblower's written complaint and also had information from a former senior official charging that Wilkie had sought dirt on Goldstein.
In a statement on the whistleblower's complaint, 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 Goldstein.
In a response to ProPublica, Wilkie vehemently denied the charge. Wilkie, a colonel in the Air Force Reserves, said, "I never would do that to a fellow officer. It is a breach of honor."
At a Feb. 8 National Press Club news conference, Wilkie also denied that his abrupt firing of VA Deputy Secretary James Byrne, the No. 2 at the VA, was related to the Goldstein case. Wilkie was vague on the reasons for Byrne's dismissal but said it was "in the best interests of the organization."
Wilkie added at the time that he wanted to re-examine the Goldstein case to assure her that the VA is committed to creating a better environment for all female veterans at VA facilities.
"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," he said.
In a statement Friday in response to Missal's opening of an investigation, Christina Mandreucci, a VA spokeswoman, said that the "VA will cooperate fully, just as the department did with the initial investigation into the allegations regarding the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center."
"To be clear, the only investigation into Ms. Goldstein's allegations was that of the independent inspector general [Missal] and U.S. Attorney -- an investigation Sec. Wilkie requested immediately upon learning of the allegations," according to the statement. "That investigation was closed with no charges filed, and neither the independent inspector general nor the U.S. Attorney has recommended any corrective or personnel actions, or general suggestions for improvement to VA."
In their Monday letter to Missal calling for an investigation, the senators said the allegations that Wilkie sought to "cast doubt" on Goldstein's complaint and "paint the individual as dishonest, and discredit her traumatic experience, demonstrates VA's continued inability to ensure women veterans are welcomed and supported by the country they have served."
The letter was signed by Murray and Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio; Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut; Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii; Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont; and Tammy Duckworth, D-Illinois.
In a statement Thursday night, Murray said, "There is absolutely no place for retaliation against veterans who report assault and harassment. I'm glad VA's Inspector General has listened to Congress -- and survivors -- by deciding to look into these allegations."
The case grew out of Goldstein's visit to the Washington VA Medical Center last September. She initially told The New York Times that an individual she believed to be another veteran rubbed up against her and made lewd suggestions.
She later held a news conference outside the hospital with Takano to detail her allegations. The IG's office and the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia investigated but decided not to bring charges for lack of evidence.
A factor in the decision may have been that security cameras in the area where Goldstein said she was assaulted were not working that day, according to the IG.
Wilkie quickly seized on the dismissal of the case as vindication for the VA. In a letter to Takano, he wrote:
"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."
Takano responded in a statement: "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."
Wilkie's letter also drew a rebuke from Missal. "Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the Department that the allegations were unsubstantiated," he 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."
The investigation of the Goldstein case comes as Wilkie faces growing criticism from veterans service organizations on several other fronts.
His surprise firing of Byrne continued the high rate of turnover among senior VA leadership, and last week he was forced to announce a delay in the rollout of the highly touted $16 billion effort to provide the VA with an electronic medical records system that would mesh with the Defense Department.
Wilkie himself ended up with the VA job as the result of the turnover in the department. He was serving as under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness at the Pentagon when President Donald Trump fired then-VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin in March 2018, following a scandal on spending for an overseas trip.
Then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis agreed to send Wilkie to the VA on an interim basis, partly to resolve the infighting between political appointees and long-time VA staff, but Trump decided to nominate him as secretary.
Wilkie was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 86-9 and was sworn in as VA secretary in July 2018.
On Thursday, at a joint hearing of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on the VA's budget, Wilkie in his opening statement cited VA surveys showing the increased satisfaction rates of female veterans with services at VA facilities.
At the end of the hearing, Takano told Wilkie, "Before we leave, I do want to address an important issue -- that's the issue of sexual assault and harassment at our various VA facilities."
"We do need to make some cultural changes to improve the care of our women veterans, to make them feel welcome. And making the cultural changes necessary to make the VA an inviting place for our increasing number of women veterans will require leadership from the top," he added.
On Wednesday, at another joint budget hearing at which veterans service organizations testified, AMVETS National Chairman Jan Brown charged that Wilkie's handling of the Goldstein case had turned into a "victim-blaming fiasco."
-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg contributed to this report.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.