Whistleblowers Say VA Managers Made Lewd Sexual Advances. Now, the Agency Has Been Subpoenaed by Congress.

Seal displayed on the front of the Veterans Affairs Department building
A seal is displayed on the front of the Veterans Affairs Department building in Washington on June 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

The House Veterans Affairs Committee voted Thursday to issue a subpoena to the Department of Veterans Affairs to force the agency to turn over documents related to allegations of sexual harassment within a VA office in charge of preventing harassment and discrimination.

"Subpoenas from this committee are extraordinary and rare," committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill., said at Thursday's committee meeting. "The last time the House Veterans Affairs Committee issued a subpoena was in 2016. In light of this, I do not take the step of issuing a subpoena today lightly. However, the horrific nature of the alleged misconduct, and the department's failure to act properly and quickly, has led us to this point."

The investigation centers on allegations from two whistleblowers who approached the committee last year about what they described as widespread sexual harassment within the VA's Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion.

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The first whistleblower told the committee the office is a "systemic sexual cesspool" and made allegations against three specific supervisors, according to a slideshow presented at Thursday's meeting. The second whistleblower provided the committee with crude and aggressive text messages she received from her superiors in the office.

In one text, the chief of staff in the office allegedly told the whistleblower that he wanted to "make you lose your mind" by performing oral sex on her, according to screenshots of the texts obtained by Military.com.

In other texts, he called the woman "sexy" and said he was "attracted to your curves" and that he often thought about "how good it will be to roll over on top of you and start the day by filling you up," according to the screenshots.

When the woman made clear she was not interested in a sexual relationship with him, he at first told her he understood but then allegedly proceeded to continue sending her sexually explicit messages. His tone toward her at work also shifted, including telling her that her request for official travel was "insubordination" and calling her behavior "nonsense” to other leaders in the office, according to copies of emails included in the slideshow.

The whistleblower also alleged that another supervisor in the office sent her flirtatious messages over Microsoft Teams, an office messaging system. In one message, he told her "you know that [the supervisor] wants-what-he-wants," according to a screenshot obtained by Military.com.

After Bost first made the sexual harassment allegations public in November, the VA said it was reassigning some leaders in the office and would launch its own investigation.

In a statement Thursday after the committee's vote, the VA said it has already provided the committee with 1,175 pages of documents, including 27 transcribed interviews from the department's internal investigation. The department also committed to providing the panel with several hundred thousand pages more, including the results of its internal investigation, by the end of January.

"VA does not tolerate sexual harassment. We are treating these allegations with the utmost seriousness, have moved to aggressively investigate them, and will take swift and appropriate action," VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said in an emailed statement.

"We appreciate the oversight of our congressional partners, which helps us better serve VA employees and our nation's veterans, and we will continue to fully cooperate with their activities in this matter," Hayes added.

The resolution approved by the committee Thursday authorizes Bost to issue a subpoena for a range of documents and communications related to any allegations of sexual harassment against the chief of staff, supervisor and a third accused manager.

A draft of the subpoena obtained by Military.com ahead of its public release demands VA Secretary Denis McDonough provide all documents and communications from a host of VA officials related to the allegations against the three managers. The draft did not include a deadline for complying with the subpoena, with a source saying the deadline was still being determined. The subpoena is expected to be formally issued later this week.

The vote to issue the subpoena was bipartisan, with both Republicans and Democrats expressing disgust at the evidence the whistleblowers presented.

"These allegations are completely unacceptable. I believe that the VA was negligent in its response," said Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif. "I can't vote negatively in good faith on this resolution. ... I have been on this committee for 11 years, and for 11 years, I have fought for women [against] sexual abuse within the VA."

Still, Brownley said that McDonough has been "very, very clear that he would fully comply with" the committee's investigation.

And even as they voted to support the subpoena, several Democrats expressed concerns Republicans' methods in the investigation could expose sensitive information about the victims. Democrats also questioned Republicans' motivations for focusing on sexual harassment within an office of diversity and inclusion, an area that has been a political target of Republicans.

Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the ranking member of the committee who was the lone member to vote against the subpoena, also argued that, although any allegations of sexual harassment should be taken seriously and investigated, a subpoena was premature while both the internal VA investigation and an investigation by the Postal Service's equal employment opportunity office are ongoing. The Postal Service is investigating since the allegations involve the VA office in charge of equal employment opportunity complaints.

"We as a committee have a very great power to compel production of information and the appearance of people," Takano said. "We should in no way abuse that power, especially when individuals' reputation and livelihoods are at stake. I fully support the pursuit of the truth, always. However, I do not support attempts to poison the process, especially when it may have a chilling effect on other individuals coming forward."

Related: VA Threatened with Subpoena Amid House Investigation into Sexual Harassment Allegations

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