“This matter is a high priority for our office,” Missal wrote in letters to House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) and six senators led by Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who joined the chairman in demanding an investigation.
Wilkie, who previously ran the Pentagon’s personnel and readiness operation, has denied making inquiries about the woman, Andrea Goldstein. She serves as Takano’s senior policy adviser on female veterans issues and is an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, as Wilkie once was.
Christina Mandreucci, a VA spokeswoman, said in a statement that Wilkie will “cooperate fully” with the investigation, as she said the department did when Wilkie asked authorities to investigate Goldstein’s report that she was assaulted at the hospital.
Mandreucci noted that since that case was closed with no charges, “neither the independent inspector general nor the U.S. attorney has recommended any corrective or personnel actions, or general suggestions for improvement to VA.”
Takano’s staff received information this month from a senior VA official, confirmed by The Washington Post, that Wilkie worked to damage Goldstein’s credibility following her report that a man groped and propositioned her in the main lobby of the agency’s D.C. Medical Center.
Wilkie told his staff his inquiry discovered Goldstein had filed multiple complaints of sexual misconduct while serving in the Navy, according to three current or former senior VA officials. Over several months, Wilkie shared his findings with his senior staff at morning meetings on at least six occasions, these people said.
Wilkie then suggested to several people on his staff, including his public affairs chief, that they use the information he collected to discredit Goldstein, the people said. It is unclear whether any followed through.
Goldstein has disputed filing multiple complaints that she was sexually harassed or assaulted during her military service. She said she filed one formal complaint with the Navy in 2014 when her department head sexually harassed her multiple times. She said he was removed from his post.
In a sign that the case has gained an increasingly high profile, Goldstein has hired Mark Zaid, a prominent Washington attorney who represents the intelligence official who sounded the alarm on President Trump’s involvement in asking Ukraine to investigate a political rival.
“We intend to ensure @DeptVetAffairs takes her concerns, & those of other assault victims, seriously,” Zaid tweeted late Wednesday.
Missal’s investigation is compounding signs of turmoil at the government’s second-largest agency, as Trump prepares to campaign for reelection on fulfilling his promises to veterans.
Wilkie fired his well-regarded deputy secretary James Byrne this month, publicly offering only vague explanations he did not “gel” with other agency leaders.
The White House does not plan to replace Byrne before the November election, a senior administration official said. It is unlikely a nominee would be confirmed by the Senate, and the president believes Wilkie and his current team can run the agency without a deputy, the official said.
The agency’s signature policy under Trump, an aggressive expansion of private health care for veterans known as the Mission Act, is facing ballooning costs since it launched last June, officials told lawmakers this month. They acknowledged they do not know how many veterans are participating and whether patients are waiting shorter times to be seen by private doctors when compared with the VA system.
Wilkie has delayed a planned rollout in Washington state in March of a $16 billion overhaul of its aging medical records system amid technical problems. And an office formed early in Trump’s tenure to encourage whistleblowers to come forward with reports of misconduct by senior officials remains in disarray months after a scathing inspector general report said it was failing in its most basic mission.
“We’re definitely concerned about the turmoil,” said Randy Reese, executive director of Disabled American Veterans. “They have culture issues and leadership challenges they need to get a hold of.”
Wilkie’s handling of the Goldstein case has prompted a public pushback from several prominent female veterans, who say he has set back the agency’s efforts to make women feel safe at VA facilities.
After authorities declined to file charges in the D.C. Medical Center case in January, Wilkie publicly called Goldstein’s claims “unsubstantiated,” touching a nerve with lawmakers, female veterans and VA staff as the agency struggles to provide health-care access and a safe environment to its fastest-growing veteran population.
“I’ve reconciled myself to the idea that we’re not going to get traction,” said Kate Germano, a Marine Corps veteran and author who resigned from VA’s advisory committee on female veterans over Wilkie’s conduct toward Goldstein.
The American Legion, the largest old-line veterans group, took the unusual step of calling for an investigation into the Wilkie allegations, saying they “bring into question the ethical suitability of the leadership at VA’s highest levels.”
On Wednesday, AMVETS National Commander Jan Brown told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that VA leaders have turned the case into a “victim-blaming fiasco.”
“Imagine instead of it being Ms. Goldstein, it’s your mother, sister, or daughter who made these claims,” Brown said. “Would you tolerate for even a moment her character being questioned? These women who are brave enough to come forward deserve the same consideration.”
On Thursday, as Wilkie appeared before the committee to answer questions about the proposed White House budget for his agency, Takano told him cultural changes to improve the care of female veterans and make them feel welcome at VA facilities “will require leadership from the top.”
Wilkie and Trump, with different temperaments and backgrounds, are not personally close. The secretary’s supporters in recommending him to lead VA, former chief of staff John F. Kelly and former defense secretary Jim Mattis, have long left the administration.
Wilkie has angered some in the White House by lobbying for other jobs in the administration. But he retains the president’s support and has committed to serve through the election, a senior administration official said.
Bob Carey, chief advocacy officer for The Independence Fund, a group that works with disabled veterans and is an ally of the White House, who has known Wilkie for years, called him “a unique guy for this time with a skill set to get reforms through.”
With a growing population of female veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, VA has struggled to address their health-care needs and ensure they do not face harassment in its sprawling health-care system.
Sexual harassment remains a significant problem at hospitals and clinics, leading to campaigns to stop misconduct in the health system. But the latest one, which calls for bystander training for employees, does not make the training mandatory. Advocates say agency leaders have not publicly embraced the effort, which varies in intensity among facilities.
The health-care system has long struggled to hire primary and specialty care physicians who are equipped to meet the unique health care needs of women returning from service.
Wilkie told lawmakers Thursday that VA is currently training about 7,000 physicians and nurses how to provide “gender-specific” care to female veterans.
During his tenure, VA’s Center for Women Veterans has focused less on substantive policy than it had during the Obama administration, multiple current and former VA officials and advocates said.
“It’s been my perception that the momentum I thought was happening has stalled,” said Kayla Williams, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security who led the center from 2016 to 2018. “I’m not aware of any significant initiatives.”
Mandreucci said the agency has “made significant progress” in serving female veterans in recent years and now provides comprehensive primary care, gynecology, maternity, specialty care and mental health services.
“VA remains focused on maintaining a welcoming environment to all who have worn the uniform, including the 41 percent of all women Veterans who are enrolled in VA care.”
Top agency officials also point to the large number of women serving as political appointees in the Trump administration.
The five Senate Democrats and independent Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) who wrote to Missal this week asked him to investigate not just Wilkie’s conduct in the Goldstein case but also to assess whether the agency is effectively preventing and addressing sexual violence throughout its sprawling health system.
“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.
Missal, in his letter Thursday, told the lawmakers, “we are closely monitoring the environment of care and facility safety.”