Congressional officials are looking into whether Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie pursued his own investigation into House Veterans’ Committee staffer who alleged she was sexually assaulted at a department hospital, in an effort to discredit her story.
VA officials insist the allegation is false. In a statement, Wilkie said that “I never would do that to a fellow officer, it is a breach of honor.”
But a department insider with knowledge of the case said that Wilkie for months looked for damaging information against Andrea Goldstein, a senior policy adviser for the House Veterans Affairs Committee, after she filed a complaint about harassment and abuse at the Washington D.C. Medical Center in September.
In addition, committee officials received an anonymous complaint about Wilkie’s behavior, alleging he spearheaded an internal campaign to attack her character. That complaint was first reported by ProPublica.
In a statement, committee spokeswoman Jenni Geurink said that lawmakers are “considering all investigative options” as they review the information.
“This ordeal has been draining and unfair to Ms. Goldstein, a decorated Navy Reserve Intelligence Officer recently selected for early promotion to lieutenant commander, who has done outstanding work on behalf of women veterans in her time with the Women Veterans Task Force,” she said.
VA leadership for months has said that the investigation into Goldstein’s claims would be handled by the department’s inspector general, and the Department of Justice if needed. In September, she claimed that an unidentified man groped her and propositioned her in the main lobby of the medical center, which sits just a few miles away from Capitol Hill.
Goldstein also complained that staff was slow to react when she reported the incident. Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said at the time the incident was indicative of a misogynistic culture within VA, and demanded an overhaul of VA anti-harassment policies.
Wilkie promised a full review. Last month, after the inspector general closed the case without charges, Wilkie wrote to Takano that “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.”
That response drew the ire of Democratic lawmakers and outside advocates. In a statement Friday, Wilkie said that “that describing the allegations as ‘unsubstantiated’ was a poor choice of words.”
Still, VA leadership maintains that the case was handled properly and senior department officials did not interfere with the investigation.
But the department insider said that Wilkie actively sought information on Goldstein’s past, including contacting individuals who served with her and reviewing her service records. Several senior officials were told about his findings, and Wilkie encouraged some of them to cast doubt on her story.
Wilkie served in both the Navy Reserve and Air Force Reserve before his stint as VA Secretary. In an essay for the website Jezebel earlier this week, Goldstein said she felt betrayed that Wilkie “was implying that a fellow Navy veteran was a liar.”
The latest controversy comes just days after Wilkie abruptly fired the second-ranking official within VA, Deputy Secretary James Byrne. Wilkie has said the decision was “a simple business decision” and not a sign of leadership disarray at the department, but individuals close to Byrne have characterized VA headquarters as chaotic and mismanaged.
Wilkie has said he wants more information from the inspector general on Goldstein’s case. “He is not interested in personalities, he simply wants the IG to help us address improper behavior by our employees and fix security process issues,” VA press secretary Christina Mandreucci said.
Among those possible fixes are installing more security cameras in public areas of VA medical centers, since none were present in the lobby where Goldstein said she was attacked.
But House committee officials said the investigation now needs to go deeper than that, to include whether high-ranking “VA officials may have utilized government time and resources to attempt to tarnish a member of our staff’s character, discredit her, and spread false information about her past in retaliation for her reporting of a sexual assault.”
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.