Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie disparaged a veteran who claimed she was sexually assaulted at a VA hospital and sought to undermine her credibility, a new investigation from the department's inspector general has found. The report did not, however, substantiate reports that Wilkie actively investigated the former service member or ordered others to look into her background.
The VA IG has since February been investigating allegations that Wilkie took steps to discredit Andrea Goldstein, a Navy Reserve intelligence officer and adviser to the House Veterans Affairs Committee, after she said she was groped at the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C. in September.
In a report released Thursday, Inspector General Michael Missal said his office could not substantiate the charge that Wilkie actively sought proof that Goldstein had filed "at least six equal employment opportunity-type complaints" while she was on active duty.
But the VA IG did find that VA officials began to take actions within hours of Goldstein's report that appeared to seek reasons to undermine her credibility. According to the investigation, the same day as the complaint, they began discussing whether Goldstein had complained about verbal abuse from a VA provider. And, the probe found, they ran a background check on Goldstein and circulated the findings before a background check was conducted on the accused, and later launched a media campaign to question Goldstein's credibility, targeting nine national press outlets.
"The evidence is replete with examples of VA senior leaders undertaking defensive actions and engaging in confrontational messaging while failing to recognize the need to take corrective action to address known problems," the report stated. " ...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."
According to the report, senior VA officials refused to engage with the IG's office for follow-on interviews as part of the investigation and failed to take corrective measures to respond to the complaint.
They also encouraged members of the media to focus on Goldstein -- to dig into her background for any history of filing sexual harassment complaints.
According to the report, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Curt Cashour contacted a journalist suggesting the reporter look into the veteran's past -- a request he said he made on his own initiative, but in light of comments from Wilkie.
"The response of Secretary Wilkie and senior VA officials to the veteran's complaint of sexual assault was troubling," Missal said in a statement Thursday. "Scrutinizing the veteran's background is contrary to VA's stated goal to serve veterans with respect. Every VA employee should commit to making VA facilities safe and welcoming places where such complaints are met with the highest standards of professionalism and responsiveness."
In Sept. 2019, Goldstein, a lead staff member for the House Veterans Affairs Committee's Women Veterans Task Force, said she was propositioned, body-checked and groped by a man at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center.
During a press conference a week after the alleged assault, Goldstein said several VA employees witnessed the incident but did not intervene. Police were called, she added, only after she reported the incident to "multiple employees -- a worker at the information desk, the patient advocate, and finally my doctor."
In response to the allegations, House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., called on the department to ensure that its employees take bystander intervention training so that they know how to react, intervene and respond to incidents of harassment or assault.
The VA IG launched an investigation into the incident, but no charges were filed. Among the reasons VA officials cited for not pursuing the case was that the security cameras at the facility were not working, impeding the investigation.
A month later, after receiving reports that Wilkie had actively attempted to discredit Goldstein, Takano and the committee asked Missal to investigate the secretary.
In November, James Byrne, former VA deputy secretary, told multiple media outlets that he was fired for refusing to take part in any effort to damage Goldstein's reputation.
I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, he's gone from just spouting off crazy foolishness to maybe he did actually try to trash this woman,'" Byrne said. "At the time, I thought, 'Oh, my God, he did go try to dig up dirt on this woman,' and he's, of course, exaggerated it."
In response to the IG report, Wilkie said the allegations were false, claiming that after interviews with 65 people, the IG "did not identify any documentary evidence corroborating" the statements of a VA official who made the charges.
Wilkie did not name the individual, who he said had refused a formal interview with the VA IG.
According to the report, Byrne "declined to voluntarily appear before IG investigators for a formal interview, and the OIG lacks testimonial subpoena power to compel the testimony of non-VA employees."
As a result of not being able to substantiate the allegations, Wilkie said the IG "shifted its focus to policing and critiquing confidential internal deliberations among VA staff."
"The IG established a strawman in which any discussion or scrutiny of public and high-profile allegations against the department, or a general desire to know the truth are somehow improper," Wilkie said. "This is an impossible standard that no organization -- including the inspector general -- could meet."
"VA takes all allegations of sexual assault seriously ... The tortuous logic the IG uses in an attempt to justify the abdication of its responsibility to provide the department with a report into that complaint is extremely bewildering and contrary to IG policy," Wilkie added.
A VA IG spokesman said Thursday that the office never presented a criminal case to federal prosecutors regarding Wilkie or any other VA official involved in the Goldstein case.