Confronted with a sexual assault allegation at a veterans hospital, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie repeatedly sought to discredit the congressional aide who made the complaint and his staff worked to spread negative information about her while ignoring known problems of harassment at the facility, according to an investigative report released Thursday.
The 47-page report by the VA’s internal watchdog paints a portrait of a department led by senior officials who were indifferent, if not hostile, to the issues at the department’s flagship medical center in the nation’s capital. It found that Wilkie acted unprofessionally if not unethically, in the case of the Navy veteran who is a policy adviser to Democratic Rep. Mark Takano of California, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.
Wilkie and other senior officials declined to fully cooperate with the investigation. For that reason, VA Inspector General Michael Missal said he could not conclude whether Wilkie had acted illegally, allegedly by personally digging into the adviser's past history and working with a Republican congressman to dismiss her as a repeat complainer.
Wilkie said the allegations are false.
The findings are a black eye for a department that has seen improved performance and veterans’ satisfaction with VA care under a departing Trump administration. But there also has been persistent turmoil, ethical challenges and disarray in its leadership. The department has received particular criticism for an unwelcoming culture for female veterans, the military’s fastest growing subgroup.
“The response of Secretary Wilkie and senior VA officials to the veteran’s complaint of sexual assault was troubling,” Missal said in a statement. “Scrutinizing the veteran’s background is contrary to VA’s stated goal to serve veterans with respect. Every VA employee should commit to making VA facilities safe and welcoming places where such complaints are met with the highest standards of professionalism and responsiveness.”
According to the report, Wilkie showed undue defensiveness once he learned of the complaint in late 2019. He referred the matter as requested to the inspector general s but spent parts of leadership meetings dismissing her concerns as politically motivated, the report said.
It said former VA Deputy Secretary Jim Byrne testified that Wilkie indicated to staff he gathered negative information from the Pentagon and Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who knew the congressional aide when she was in the Navy, that she had made frivolous complaints previously.
The inspector general could not conclusively confirm that Wilkie improperly investigated her, in part because of his refusal to fully cooperate with questioning, but had “substantial sworn testimony” of Wilkie repeatedly belittling her. Crenshaw denies discussing the case with Wilkie.
“The tone set by Secretary Wilkie appears to have influenced aspects of the initial VA police investigation and the conduct of other VA employees,” the report said.
Wilkie became VA secretary in 2018 after President Donald Trump fired David Shulkin amid ethics troubles and inner rebellion at the department over Shulkin’s leadership.
“After nearly a year of investigation, interviews with 65 people and analysis of nearly 1.5 million documents, VA’s inspector general cannot substantiate that I sought to investigate or asked others to investigate the veteran,” Wilkie said.
Trump repeatedly points to an improved VA as one of his top accomplishments. “For years, you’d always see vets and how badly treated they were,” he told a Georgia rally last week. “You don’t see that anymore.”
President-elect Joe Biden is pledging to rebuild trust in the VA and better agency relations with Congress, including boosting medical services for women veterans. On Thursday, Biden said he will nominate Denis McDonough, who served as President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff, to be VA secretary.
The congressional staffer filed her assault complaint in September 2019 after visiting the VA medical center for an appointment. She has told media outlets that she was buying a snack in the hospital cafeteria when an unidentified man slammed his body into hers and propositioned her. Her case was ultimately closed by the inspector general’s office and Justice Department this year due to lack of enough evidence to bring charges.
The VA medical center in Washington has had a history of complaints from women about harassment that were widely known by senior officials, according to the report.
William Hudson, the VA’s acting general counsel, testified that after the complaint, he wanted to see what could be done to improve the Washington facility but that he got no support. “I saw for myself that it is very distressful for anyone and especially females to go through that and be gawked and stared at,” he said. He added that was one of the reasons there was a separate entrance for women to the pro bono legal assistance clinic.
The report said senior officials showed “an unusual level of engagement” in the police investigation, with one officer reporting that a VA official had remarked that she “made a complaint similar to this before" and seemingly encouraged background checks on her.
If the VA had taken the complaint seriously and reviewed VA police reports, it would have learned that a female VA employee had also previously complained in May 2019 about being repeatedly sexually harassed by the same man, as well as information about the contractor’s criminal history. VA officials did not examine the information, the report said.
The VA says it has strived to improve some services for women, though advocates say change has not come fast enough. A study released by the VA last year found 1 in 4 female veterans using VA health care reported inappropriate comments by male veterans on VA grounds.
Currently, about 10% of the nation’s veterans are women. In the U.S. military forces, about 17% of those enlisted are women, compared with about 2% in 1973.