A group of 50 House lawmakers is demanding immediate improvements to the Department of Veterans Affairs system for investigating sexual harassment complaints after a woman was stalked and intimidated by a call center employee who used his post to look up her personal information.
In a letter sent this week to VA Secretary Denis McDonough, the group — led by Assistant House Speaker Katherine Clark, D-Mass. — said they are “deeply concerned about the sexual harassment of women veterans and employees at the department” and urged immediate implementation of legislation recently passed by Congress mandating a centralized reporting system for all such complaints.
“The lack of consistent policies has led to deeply troubling incidences of sexual harassment, including a recent incident in Massachusetts where a woman veteran was intimidated and sexually harassed by a supervisor from the VA’s National Call Center,” the group wrote.
“Using personal information that he improperly collected from her VA medical records, this VA supervisor called the female veteran … commented on her appearance, asked about sexual preferences, and made abhorrent, threatening remarks while urinating on camera.”
Denis McDonough was sworn in as the new VA Secretary on Tuesday.
In a statement, VA officials confirmed the previously unreported event and said the individual involved no longer works for the department.
“VA takes all allegations of discrimination, harassment and assault extremely seriously,” VA press secretary Terrence Hayes said in a statement. “The Veterans Benefits Administration launched an immediate investigation upon reporting of the incident. And while the accused is no longer a VA employee, the investigation continues.”
The incident occurred in February, according to congressional staff. After the victim had called into VA to look into an ongoing claim, the VA employee called her back on a personal cell phone, gave her false information about her claim and began commenting on photos he found of her online.
He also asked whether she was in a relationship and suggested he would drive to her house to “keep her company.” When she refused his advances, he threatened her, talked about his own post-traumatic stress issues and guns he had at home.
The woman reported the incident to local and VA police. Department security officials said she would have to come into their office to make a formal complaint, and suggested she take it up with the man’s supervisor instead.
The Massachusetts case is the latest in a series of sexual misconduct scandals for the department. In 2018, a report from the Government Accountability Office found that about one on four women working at VA reported experiencing sexual harassment or abuse, and one in three employees said they witnessed an act of sexual misconduct.
Last year, dozens of Democratic lawmakers and veterans advocates demanded the resignation of then VA Secretary Robert Wilkie over his mishandling of a sexual abuse complaint from a congressional staffer while she visited the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center.
A VA Inspector General report found that following her complaint, Wilkie acted “unprofessionally” by questioning the victim’s credibility, although they found no criminal action.
The lawmakers who wrote to McDonough this week said that the victim in the Massachusetts case “was unable to identify any centralized mechanism to report the sexual harassment " and still has not received answers from VA officials about how her personal information is being protected.
Wilkie is facing criticism for his handling of a sexual assault complaint at a department medical center.
“It is absolutely critical for VA to move forward with … creating a centralized reporting mechanism for VA beneficiaries and to designate sexual harassment and assault prevention coordinators, so that veterans know where to turn when subjected to degrading treatment when accessing care and benefits,” the group wrote.
“Without a centralized system, not only will our veterans’ safety continue to be jeopardized, but we will not have the necessary data to help identify and address where and how this unacceptable problem is occurring in the VA system.”
McDonough has said he will have a “zero-tolerance” policy for staffers on sexual misconduct and discrimination. In a statement, officials said anyone who wants to report sexual misconduct by a VA employee can contact the department’s inspector general or VA police.