Three major veterans’ groups on Friday called for the immediate dismissal of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie following a scathing government audit that found he had acted unprofessionally if not unethically in the handling of a congressional aide’s allegation of sexual assault at a VA hospital.
Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans and AMVETS said Wilkie had breached the trust of veterans and that they no longer had confidence he can effectively lead the department, which is responsible for the care of nine million veterans.
“We’ve had our concerns about Wilkie’s leadership throughout the pandemic and this IG report really cements the fact that the VA is not being led with integrity,” said Jeremy Butler, CEO of IAVA. “And that calls for an immediate change.”
An investigation by the Veterans Affairs’ inspector general on Thursday concluded that Wilkie repeatedly sought to discredit Andrea Goldstein, a senior policy adviser to Democratic Rep. Mark Takano, who is chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, after she alleged in September 2019 that a man at the VA medical center in Washington D.C., had physically assaulted her.
The inspector general found that Wilkie’s disparaging comments about Goldstein, a Navy veteran, as a repeat complainer as well as the overall “tone” he set influenced his staff to spread negative information about her while ignoring known problems of harassment at the facility.
Wilkie and other senior officials had declined to fully cooperate with the investigation by VA Inspector General Michael Missal. For that reason, Missal said Thursday he could not conclude whether Wilkie had violated government policies or laws, allegedly by personally digging into the woman’s past. Wilkie denied wrongdoing.
Randy Reese, executive director of DAV’s Washington headquarters, on Friday said the actions of Wilkie and other senior VA officials were clearly at odds with VA’s no-tolerance policy toward sexual harassment and unacceptable.
“Time and time again, our organization has stated that changing the culture at VA must begin at the highest levels of leadership—that in order for VA to foster an environment where all veterans feel welcome and safe accessing their earned care, VA’s top leaders must set the example and hold accountable anyone who violates this trust,” he said.
“VA can and must do better,” Reese said.
In a tweet Friday, AMVETS national commander Jan Brown said her group supported DAV’s call for Wilkie’s immediate removal.
The report on Thursday drew widespread concern from lawmakers from both parties about VA’s leadership, with Takano the first to call for Wilkie’s resignation. Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group who supported Wilkie when he became VA secretary in 2018, chided Wilkie and his team, stressing that “VA leaders should always put the veteran and the integrity of the institution ahead of themselves.”
The case of Goldstein, who agreed to be publicly identified, was ultimately closed by the inspector general’s office and Justice Department earlier this year due to a lack of enough evidence to bring charges.
Wilkie, who is President Donald Trump’s second VA secretary after David Shulkin was fired in 2018, has had an up and down tenure in which the nation’s largest hospital system has seen continuing improvement and veterans’ satisfaction since a 2014 scandal where some veterans died while waiting months for medical appointments at VA facilities.
Wilkie, however, has taken flak from conservatives for restricting veterans’ access to private care for many months during the pandemic, a move they said rendered Trump’s core agenda of enhancing VA “Choice” ineffective. Wilkie also drew some fire from IAVA and other groups for embracing the president’s unsubstantiated claims that hydroxychloroquine was safe for veterans to freely take for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19.
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to rebuild trust in the VA when he takes office on Jan. 20. He has selected Denis McDonough, who served as President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff, to be VA secretary.