The former Deputy Secretary of Veteran Affairs for the first time is publicly accusing top department leaders of attempting to smear a House staffer who claimed sexual assault at a VA hospital and firing him for not cooperating in the effort.
James Byrne, who served as VA’s second-highest ranking official before his firing last February, told Newsweek in an interview Thursday that official announcements blaming his dismissal on “business decisions” were used to cover up VA Secretary Robert Wilkie’s attempts to attack his political foes, and Byrne’s own refusal to go along with the plan.
The incident renews questions about leadership instability and the department’s commitment to solving problems of sexual misconduct at department facilities.
It also puts new focus on a still pending inspector general report over whether Wilkie violated VA procedures and ethics rules in his handling of the staffer’s assault claims.
VA leaders have downplayed the incident, but others see it as a shocking attack on a well-respected administrator.
In a February press conference, Wilkie explained the sudden dismissal of Byrne by saying only that “there are times in any company, in the military and even in Congress, when some people in the organization just don’t gel with the team.”
But on Friday, in response to the Byrne interview, VA press secretary Christina Noel claimed that Byrne was fired for “inappropriate conduct, erratic behavior, as well as general incompetence.”
She also said he was “fired in disgrace,” despite Wilkie’s public statements in February that he wished Byrne well and that he had no specific problems with his work. She provided no evidence to back up the claims, other than to say Wilkie’s public comments were “an effort to spare Mr. Byrne personal embarrassment.”
The firing drew confusion at the time from many in Congress and the veterans community, given Byrne’s previous 18 months in the position as acting deputy and later as a Senate confirmed appointee. Sources within VA said that the firing was handled in a hostile and sudden manner, with armed security officers escorting Byrne out of the building.
In his Newsweek interview, Byrne insisted his firing had to do instead with Wilkie’s desire to discredit Andrea Goldstein, a senior policy adviser for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, who filed a complaint about harassment and abuse at the Washington D.C. Medical Center in September 2019.
She publicly spoke out about her experience as a woman veteran at VA facilities and the need for reforms throughout the department during a press conference at the hospital shortly after the incident.
In January, the VA inspector general closed the case with no charges filed, saying they could not identify the man who Goldstein claimed had attacked her in a public area of the hospital. Their report said they could not substantiate or dismiss the claims, pointing in part to a lack of video cameras in the lobby.
Senior VA officials at the time spun the report as proof that Goldstein had been lying. Democratic House committee leaders — who have frequently fought publicly with Wilkie and other top officials in recent years — defended Goldstein and criticized VA for a callous response.
Byrne said Wilkie conducted his own investigation into Goldstein in an attempt to undermine her credibility, despite public promises that he would leave the matter to the inspector general’s office.
That included meetings with Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who once served in the same Navy unit as Goldstein. Byrne told Newsweek he was appalled by the moves, which he saw as motivated by political anger rather than a desire to discover the truth.
A department insider says Robert Wilkie actively worked to discredit the woman, even as he publicly promised a fair investigation.
“Who in their right mind would conduct an investigation into the character and complaint history of a sexual assault victim?” he told Newsweek.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., on Friday issued a statement blasting VA leaders conduct regarding Goldstein’s case.
“This type of denial, and an unwillingness to seek out truth is exactly the problem that has plagued VA and our nation’s military,” he said. “Casting doubt on survivors and sullying their good names will not fix the decades of injustice these servicemembers have endured.
“Leaders lead from the front. If VA hopes to fully embrace the contributions these survivors have made to our country, it must step up and build a change in culture — a change that starts at the top.”
Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., called the allegations “extremely disturbing.”
“The findings of the independent Inspector General’s ongoing investigation into this matter will be critical and I’ll be following this situation closely as I await the report’s public release,” he said. “Any officials found to be implicated in this incident have no place at the Department of Veterans Affairs and must be held accountable.”
Also on Friday, officials from the VA Inspector General’s office said an investigation into leadership’s handling of the Goldstein case remains open.
“This matter remains a high priority for our office,” VA Inspector General Michael Missal said in a statement. “We will publish a report of our findings when it is completed.”
Whether that work will be completed while Wilkie remains in office is unclear. President-elect Joe Biden is scheduled to be inaugurated in about two months. Wilkie is not expected to remain in his current post in the new administration.