VA secretary focused on smearing woman who said she was sexually assaulted in a VA hospital, probe finds
"The evidence is replete with examples of VA senior leaders undertaking defensive actions and engaging in confrontational messaging."
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared on ProPublica.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie showed “a lack of genuine commitment” to addressing a high-profile sexual assault allegation in a VA hospital and focused instead on denigrating the veteran who made the complaint, according to an investigation by the department’s internal watchdog.
Wilkie was convinced the allegation was staged to damage him politically because the veteran was a Democratic congressional staffer, investigators found. The secretary sought to attack the woman’s credibility by saying she had a history of making baseless complaints — a false smear according to the woman and investigators.
The inspector general’s report confirms ProPublica’s reporting that first revealed Wilkie’s efforts to discredit the woman. The investigators said they could not establish how Wilkie came to believe that the woman made false complaints in the past, but they did conclude that he “obtained potentially damaging information about the veteran’s past,” leading his staff to pressure VA police to scrutinize her and try to discredit her in the media. The report calls Wilkie’s conduct “unprofessional and disparaging” but not illegal.
“The evidence is replete with examples of VA senior leaders undertaking defensive actions and engaging in confrontational messaging while failing to recognize the need to take corrective action to address known problems,” investigators said in the highly anticipated report, released Thursday after a monthslong delay due to the pandemic. “The tone set by Secretary Wilkie was at minimum unprofessional and at worst provided the basis for senior officials to put out information to national reporters to question the credibility and background of the veteran who filed the sexual assault complaint.”
Wilkie previously denied looking for dirt on the staffer, saying that it would be “a breach of honor.” He stood by his denial on Thursday, providing ProPublica the same statement he gave to the inspector general.
“VA’s inspector general cannot substantiate that I sought to investigate or asked others to investigate the veteran,” Wilkie said. “That’s because these allegations are false.”
Wilkie’s claim of vindication is misleading. Investigators said they had “insufficient evidence” of how Wilkie may have obtained information about the veteran. One witness, former Deputy Secretary Jim Byrne, said Wilkie told him about it, but Wilkie denied it and Byrne didn’t have corroborating documentation. Another witness said a senior aide to Wilkie called the veteran “a serial complainer” according to “someone in the Pentagon,” but the senior aide denied it and the witness’s notes from the meeting don’t include that detail.
Investigators also did not find logs of any improper attempts to view the veteran’s service records but said they couldn’t rule out other methods of accessing the files, they said.
However Wilkie obtained the information, six witnesses said he talked about having it. In one instance, Wilkie made a surprise visit to the medical center and told its director that the veteran’s complaint was similar to past complaints she’d made. The witnesses said Wilkie made similar remarks during meetings in his office. As a result of these remarks, one of Wilkie’s press officers encouraged a journalist to look into the woman’s past.
House veterans committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., demanded that Wilkie and other top officials resign based on the conduct detailed in the report.
“He has lost the trust and confidence of all those he is charged to serve,” Takano said of Wilkie in a statement. “When the most senior leadership of VA are derelict in their duty, refuse to take immediate action to correct glaring deficiencies, and are themselves complicit in attempts to discredit and cast doubt on the facts, they betray the public trust and as a result disqualify themselves from all future public service.”
“Laying the grounds for a spectacle”
The veteran whom Wilkie wanted to discredit, Andrea Goldstein, works for Takano as a senior policy adviser to the House veterans committee. (The report doesn’t use her name because of a policy against naming sexual assault complainants, but she has already been publicly identified.) In September 2019, Goldstein said she was sexually assaulted at the VA medical center in Washington and described her experience to The New York Times.
According to the inspector general’s report, Goldstein said a man in the hospital’s atrium cafe “bumped his entire body against mine and told me I looked like I needed a smile and a good time.” The man was later identified as a contractor who regularly worked in the facility. Goldstein said surrounding staff did nothing to intervene and referred her to a patient advocate who told her to wait to make a report. Investigators confirmed that no one contacted the police until Goldstein saw her doctor.
Within hours of finding out about the alleged assault, Wilkie and his staff started questioning Goldstein’s credibility. One senior official said he recalled that Goldstein had made a complaint at another VA facility, which investigators determined she had not. Others were suspicious that the alleged assault occurred later on the same day that Goldstein had participated in a bill-drafting session aimed at reducing sexual harassment and assaults in VA medical centers.
“The sensitivity of this topic … makes me not want to be a naysayer but there are way too many coincidences that surround this,” Assistant Secretary for Congressional and Legislative Affairs Brooks Tucker said in an email. “Even in the ideal world, the stars would never align like they have in this case.”
Wilkie, for his part, said he believed Takano was “laying the grounds for a spectacle.” He also derided Goldstein’s photograph in the Times as a “glam shot.”
“Secretary Wilkie and other senior VA leaders doubted the veteran’s allegations and questioned her motivation almost immediately after learning of her complaint,” the report said. “This initial skepticism matured into repeated, apparently unsupported assertions or vague conjectures that the veteran did ‘something like this’ before, which similarly contributed to VA personnel actions focusing on the veteran and her credibility.”
Wilkie’s team pressured the VA police officers who investigated Goldstein’s complaint to focus on her instead of on her alleged assailant, according to the report. The VA’s top health official, Richard Stone, and his top aide, Larry Connell, visited the medical center seeking to view any surveillance footage (which turned out not to exist because a camera wasn’t working). A police officer at the meeting said someone mentioned the possibility of a past complaint, but he could not remember who.
“I just felt like it was pressure,” a police officer told investigators. “It was a lot of involvement. We set out to do a fair investigation, like we always do, but I couldn’t understand why so much involvement from my senior management staff about [Goldstein], because we don’t get that from anybody else.”
During this meeting, VA police ran a background check on Goldstein and circulated the results, which officers said was unusual.
“I don’t actually see why we would be trying to pull up dirt on the victim or alleged victim until we have reasonable suspicion to start thinking something doesn’t add up here,” said the lead officer working the case, who was not at the meeting.
The background check on Goldstein came two days before police ran a background check on the contractor whom Goldstein accused of attacking her. The contractor turned out to have a criminal record, including convictions for armed robbery and drug offenses, according to the report. He was never properly authorized to work in the facility. In addition, just a few months earlier he had been accused of repeatedly sexually harassing a female VA employee.
“VA officials did not examine this information, readily available in VA’s files,” the report said. Even once presented with these findings by the inspector general, the VA took no action against the contractor.
“Incomplete or incorrect”
Back at VA headquarters, Wilkie repeatedly discussed Goldstein during daily staff meetings, according to the report. One regular attendee, Acting General Counsel William Hudson Jr., told investigators he could not recall Goldstein ever coming up at the meetings. But two senior attorneys said they heard Hudson accused Goldstein of making past frivolous complaints, and one provided notes saying, “We know she’s done before.”
Two deputies said Wilkie made comments about Goldstein’s reputation based on information he received from Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas. Wilkie told investigators that Crenshaw approached him at a fundraiser to say he had served in the same Navy unit as Goldstein. Wilkie said that’s all Crenshaw told him and all he reported to his staff meeting.
Even that conflicts with Wilkie’s and Crenshaw’s past denials to ProPublica that they did not discuss Goldstein at all. But it’s also inconsistent with testimony from his deputy, Pamela J. Powers, who told investigators that Crenshaw “might have said something to the fact that [Goldstein] made allegations in the military.” Byrne also said Wilkie reported Crenshaw telling him about past complaints, and a later email among VA attorneys provided additional evidence that Crenshaw and Wilkie discussed Goldstein’s past.
Investigators determined that Wilkie’s testimony about his conversation with Crenshaw was “incomplete or incorrect,” but they were unable to reconcile it because he declined to sit for a follow-up interview. Crenshaw and his staff also refused to cooperate with the investigation, and his spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Wilkie dismissed the investigators’ examination of his staff meetings as “policing and critiquing confidential internal deliberations” under an “impossible standard” where “any discussion or scrutiny of public and high-profile allegations against the department, or a general desire to know the truth are somehow improper.”
The discussion of Goldstein’s past did not stay within Wilkie’s staff meetings. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Curtis Cashour told investigators that he advised a reporter for a global media outlet to “look into — see — if she’s done this sort of thing in the past.” The outreach was corroborated in emails and phone records. Cashour said that he based this suggestion on Wilkie’s and Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs James Hutton’s remarks about Goldstein and that they were his only basis for the information.
Asked whether his intention was to discredit Goldstein, Cashour told investigators, “I think it was an effort to get all the facts out there or at least see what’s out there.” But Cashour said Wilkie did not specifically direct him to do this.
Byrne said Wilkie repeatedly told him to find a way to distribute the information he had obtained about Goldstein and also told Hutton to get Cashour to “do something.” Wilkie, Hutton and Cashour denied Byrne’s account. Wilkie fired Byrne in February for unspecified reasons.
The journalist didn’t take Cashour’s suggestion to look into Goldstein’s past. But Wilkie’s suspicions of Goldstein’s credibility did eventually become public, in his own words.
The original investigation of Goldstein’s complaint was hampered by the lack of surveillance footage, and federal prosecutors declined to press charges. Wilkie responded with a letter to Takano criticizing him and his staff for making “unsubstantiated claims” that “could deter our Veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.”
Wilkie’s language mischaracterized the outcome of the investigation, the report said, as the inspector general’s office had informed his team that prosecutors’ decision to close the case without charges did not mean the allegations were unsubstantiated.
Wilkie used this language despite a caution from one of his own senior lawyers, who suggested rephrasing to avoid “deterring women veterans from coming forward” by “overly vilifying” Goldstein, according to the report.
Hutton also drafted a press release that went further, saying, “This is nothing short of an exoneration for the Washington DC VA [Medical Center],” and, “It is now incumbent upon Chairman Takano and his staff to explain why these serious allegations, which they forcefully and repeatedly broadcast as fact, failed to withstand basic scrutiny.” The statement was never published.
Officials including Powers and Hudson told investigators they were aware of persistent problems with harassment surrounding the women’s clinic at the Washington medical center. Yet they never fulfilled promises to train staff on how to respond to such incidents and failed to carry out an anti-harassment campaign at the hospital.
Goldstein said the investigation confirmed that Wilkie’s response to her complaint was to impugn her instead of taking responsibility. “The millions of women and men who have experienced or witnessed sexual violence in the military recognized Secretary Wilkie’s actions as horrifyingly familiar: refuse to take or enforce accountability, blame, shame, and make the victim the problem,” she said in a statment. “In this shocking abuse of power, Secretary Wilkie publicly revictimized the very people that the agency that he leads is supposed to serve.”
The investigators said VA leaders’ conduct “does not appear consistent with VA’s stated principle to treat all veterans with respect. Nor does it further VA’s objectives of ensuring that its facilities are safe and welcoming places for all veterans.” But they acknowledged that the same officials involved in this behavior are the ones who would be responsible for any disciplinary actions.
Investigators said they could not reconcile inconsistencies in the testimony of Wilkie, Powers, Cashour and Hutton because they refused to sit for a follow-up interview based on additional evidence. Agency employees are required by law to cooperate with the inspector general, but it’s not clear how that mandate could be enforced against political appointees so long as the White House and Justice Department back them up.
“Compelling employees’ cooperation would be futile because it would require the Secretary to take accountability actions concerning individuals who declined to cooperate in the very matter in which he had stopped cooperating,” investigators said in the report. They “determined that the most effective path forward was to conclude its work and issue this report without further delay.”