Top Veterans Affairs officials are criticizing a key congressional staffer for reporting an “unsubstantiated” sexual assault incident at a VA medical center, saying the accusation could discourage public trust in the institution.
But congressional leaders say VA leadership are the ones undermining faith in the institution, by attacking a victim instead of working to make their facilities accountable and safe for women veterans.
The showdown comes amid increasing tensions between the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee and department officials, who have sparred publicly over a host of issues in the last few months.
The latest fight dates back to last September, when Andrea Goldstein — a reserve Navy intelligence officer and the lead staffer on the committee’s Women Veterans Task Force — said she was groped and body checked by an unknown man while waiting in the front atrium of the Washington DC VA Medical Center.
The man, said Goldstein, also propositioned her as he made the unwanted advances. Goldstein said the incident happened in a public area, but employees at the hospital did not intervene and were slow to react when she reported the crimes.
VA officials at the time promised a full investigation. On Wednesday, officials from the VA Inspector General’s office closed the case with no charges filed.
In a letter to committee leaders the same day, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie took exception to criticism leveled by several lawmakers over a lack of training for VA employees on sexual harassment and assault.
“We believe that VA is a safe place for 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,” he 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.”
Committee leaders called that response offensive.
“When my staffer bravely came forward in September, she did so in the spirit of wanting other women veterans to feel safe,” Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said in a statement. “But the secretary’s flippant letter is only further evidence to my staffer and others that coming forward is punished, speaking out retaliated against, and that a hostile culture at VA is tolerated.”
In a separate exchange, VA Inspector General Michael Missal criticized Wilkie for mischaracterizing his office’s findings.
“I specifically told (senior VA staff) that the investigation had been closed without charges and that no other characterization could or should be made regarding the outcome of the investigation,” he wrote. “Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated.”
According to VA’s own surveys, about one in four women veterans visiting department health care facilities has experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse. Department officials have pledged to fix that problem.
But Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif. and chairwoman of the House panel’s health subcommittee, said the insensitive reaction to Goldstein’s case shows “the cultural problem that pervades VA” regarding misogyny and apathy towards women veterans. .
“The secretary should apologize and use this as a teachable moment to be a leader in stopping sexual assault at VA facilities,” she said in a statement.
“If we’ve learned anything from the #MeToo movement, it is that being heard and being supported for coming forward is an essential first step to stopping sexual assault and to ending the unfortunate culture that allows it.”
Missal said in his letter than despite the lack of charges in this case, “no one should be discouraged from reporting an alleged crime to the office of the inspector general.” House members have promised continued oversight on the issue in the months to come.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.