[Post updated May 2020] A big shakeup at the Department of Veterans Affairs has many wondering what is going on. Just five months after being named to his post, Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary James Byrne, 55, has left the agency. His boss, Secretary Robert Wilkie, is under investigation by the VA Inspector General. Some media claims say the shakeup is related to how the VA handled a sexual harassment claim made by a Congressional staffer, Andrea Goldstein.
Goldstein, claims in an op-ed piece that that it was VA Secretary Robert Wilkie who led the efforts to “find dirt” on her after she reported the incident. Six U.S. Senators have demanded an investigation into Goldstein's claims. "Secretary Wilkie's decision to cast doubt, paint the individual as dishonest, and discredit her traumatic experience demonstrates VA's continued inability to ensure women veterans are welcomed and supported by the country they have served," the senators wrote to Inspector General Michael Missal.
(We can find no tie between the sexual harassment investigation and Deputy Secretary Byrne's departure. The VA denies any connection. Byrne becomes the fourth deputy secretary to leave since President Trump took office.)
Since we first wrote this post, Secretary Wilkie denied speaking about Andrea Goldstein with members of Congress. A new report claims there is an email between Wilkie and Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw. The email has not been made public thus we don't know if the email seeks to "dig up dirt" as some have claimed. As of this writing, Wilkie remains at the helm of the VA and he has not been charged with any wrongdoing by the inspector general. The VA's Office of the Inspector General serves as the agency's internal watchdog.
The unfortunate result of all the internal turmoil at the VA is that we still haven't learned what happened to Ms. Goldstein. The media attention has been more focused on leadership at the VA and not what efforts are being made to improve working conditions at the VA.
Assault in a VA Hospital Cafeteria
Goldstein, a congressional staff member on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, says she was sexually assaulted at the Department of Veterans Affairs Hospital in September.
According to Goldstein, who serves as the senior policy advisor for the Women Veterans Task Force – she is a Navy veteran – he was a man who pressed his entire body against hers below the waist and told her she “looked like she could use a good time.” This allegedly occurred in the atrium of the hospital cafeteria.
Once Goldstein reported the assault, by law, the VA’s inspector general must conduct an investigation in conjunction with federal prosecutors. However, the case is now closed, as no charges were filed after the investigation.
The inspector general’s office cites a lack of evidence, as the security cameras in the area were not working at the time of the alleged assault.
Aiming to Discredit
According to a former senior official, who wishes to remain anonymous, Wilkie decided to start his own investigation. He received “damaging” information about Goldstein and aimed to discredit her. Others have corroborated the former official’s story, although all want to remain anonymous.
In January, Wilkie sent a letter to Congress referring to Goldstein’s allegations as “unsubstantiated.” However, the inspector general said Wilkie’s comment did not accurately reflect the investigation’s results, and later wrote to Wilkie that no one on the staff had told him that.
VA Unwelcoming to Female Veterans
The VA has long been considered unwelcoming to female veterans, and the Goldstein case has only exacerbated that impression. Last year, a survey found that 25 percent of female veterans had experienced sexual harassment at a VA hospital.
In Wilkie’s letter to Congress, he wrote that Goldstein’s “unsubstantiated” claims could prevent female vets from seeking services at VA hospitals. Goldstein herself receives treatment through the VA for issues relating to sexual trauma during her time in the Navy.
She is especially incensed that Wilkie, a colonel in the Air Force Reserves, implied during a conversation that she was a liar. Wilkie claims he wants to “create a better environment” for female vets at VA facilities.
Do you think you were harassed at work or by a co-worker? Visit our workplace harassment FAQ page for more information. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online or by phone at 877.858.8018. All inquiries are protected by the attorney-client privilege and kept CONFIDENTIAL. (There is never a fee for a consultation.)