After a nearly year-long investigation, Veterans Affairs investigators failed to confirm explosive charges that Secretary Robert Wilkie led a criminal campaign to discredit a veteran who reported a sexual assault at a department medical center. But investigators still blasted senior VA leadership for working to attack critics rather than pursue reforms.
“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,” the report from the VA Inspector General’s office stated.
Wilkie called the report findings off-base and politically motivated, saying the facts fully vindicate his leadership team’s handling of the incident.
“The IG could not identify a single instance in which any VA employee violated any rule, regulation or policy,” he said in a statement. He also blasted the report as “more dedicated to scoring political points than improving the department — a dynamic that has defined the IG’s conduct throughout this investigation.”
James Byrne served as VA’s second-highest ranking official before his firing last February.
The controversy stems from the department’s handling of a sexual assault complaint in September 2019 from Navy reservist Andrea Goldstein, a staffer on the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. She reported being groped and verbally abused by a male veteran while she was in a public area of the Washington, D.C., medical center.
Lawmakers demanded an independent investigation and reforms to the department’s sexual misconduct prevention policies. Wilkie at the time promised to allow the inspector general to conduct an independent investigation, but disputed assertions that VA policies were at the heart of the problem.
In February, the inspector general closed its investigation into Goldstein’s accusations, saying they could not confirm or disprove them. In response, Wilkie sent a letter to the congressional committee lamenting that the “unsubstantiated” claims hurt public confidence in the department.
Just days later, at lawmakers’ request, the inspector general opened a new investigation into whether Wilkie had interfered with the initial inquiry and personally worked to discredit Goldstein.
Last month, former Deputy Secretary of Veteran Affairs James Byrne — who was fired suddenly in February — publicly alleged that Wilkie viewed Goldstein’s accusations as a political fight, and worked behind the scenes to spread rumors and discredit her.
VA officials disputed that, saying that Byrne was fired for “inappropriate conduct, erratic behavior, as well as general incompetence.” That directly contradicted Wilkie’s own reasons for Byrne’s dismissal earlier in the year, when he said there were no professional tensions.
In the new report, investigators detailed several allegations from Byrne, including that Wilkie had asked staffers to look into Goldstein’s military service and potential past complaints of sexual misconduct incidents.
They said they could not confirm those allegations, in part because of the refusal of Wilkie and other top officials to answer follow-up questions from investigators.
“Although unprofessional and disparaging, the OIG identified no violation of law, regulation, or policy in connection with the statements reported to have been made by Secretary Wilkie,” the report states.
In at least one instance, investigators found, a senior staffer worked to convince outside media to write a story attacking Goldstein, a move influenced by Wilkie’s combative stance on the issue.
The department inspector general has opened a formal case to see whether Robert Wilkie worked to undermine the congressional aide.
“The conduct of VA officials in both regards does not appear consistent with VA’s stated principle to treat all veterans with respect,” the report stated. “Nor does it further VA’s objectives of ensuring that its facilities are safe and welcoming places for all veterans.”
Investigators said that while senior officials were focused on Goldstein, “VA failed to address an environment known to be inhospitable to women at the Washington DC VA Medical Center” and ignored other possible reforms that could have been pursued.
Wilkie said despite the report’s implications, “VA takes all allegations of sexual assault seriously” and handled the incident properly.
Some lawmakers saw the report differently.
“I am speechless that Secretary Wilkie, and his staff, would work to discredit a woman veteran for reporting an assault while seeking care at a VA facility,” said Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., and head of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s task force on women veterans.
“An attack like this is clearly beneath the office of the secretary of Veterans Affairs, which is entrusted with the tremendous responsibility of ensuring that all veterans receive the care they have earned. … That a secretary of the VA would seek to undermine someone for reporting an assault is a disturbing and potent reminder of the deeply rooted culture that must change.”
The full report is available on the VA Inspector General’s website.