Just five months after being named to his post, Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary James Byrne, 55, was abruptly fired in early February over his handling of a sexual assault claim by a congressional staffer.
While some media accounts state that the firing was brought on by the White House over Byrne’s mishandling of the investigation, VA officials said that was not the case. However, neither the White House nor the VA would comment on the reason for the dismissal. Byrne is the fourth VA deputy secretary to lose his job in the Trump administration.
The victim, Andrea Goldstein, wrote an op-ed piece accusing VA Secretary Robert Wilkie of trying to “find dirt” on her after she reported the incident. While Wilkie later said Byrne was terminated due to his “loss of confidence” in him, Wilkie himself is facing intense scrutiny over the sexual assault claim.
He has denied that Byrne’s ouster was related to the sexual assault claim. Wilkie himself is now under investigation by the VA’s inspector general regarding whether he tried to discredit the victim.
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.
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