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VA chief Wilkie sought to dig up dirt on woman who complained of sexual assault, agency insiders say

Robert Wilkie, secretary of Veterans Affairs, during his news briefing at the White House in November. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

The Veterans Affairs Department’s inspector general is reviewing a request from a top House leader to investigate allegations that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie sought to dig up dirt on one of the congressman’s aides after she said she was sexually assaulted at VA’s Washington hospital.

The appeal late Friday from House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) came after he received information from a senior VA official, confirmed by The Washington Post, that Wilkie worked to discredit the credibility of the aide, senior policy adviser Andrea Goldstein.

Wilkie, who led the Pentagon’s vast personnel and readiness operation before his VA appointment, quietly began inquiring with military officials last fall about Goldstein’s past, according to three people with knowledge of his efforts. That is when Goldstein said a man groped and propositioned her in the main lobby of VA Medical Center in Washington.

President Trump congratulated Veterans Affairs secretary Robert Wilkie before a swearing in ceremony, conducted by Vice President Pence, on July 30, 2018. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Authorities closed the case in January without bringing charges.

Over several months, Wilkie shared his findings with his senior staff at morning meetings on at least six occasions, three current or former senior VA officials confirmed. Wilkie said his inquiry found that the Navy veteran, who currently serves as a Navy Reserve intelligence officer, had filed multiple complaints while in the service, according to three people with knowledge of what Wilkie said. Wilkie also served as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve.

The information shared with Takano’s committee and with The Post said Wilkie was concerned with Goldstein’s “credibility and military record.” The VA official who shared it said Wilkie described Goldstein to his staff as a “serial sexual assault/harassment complainant in the Navy who made baseless allegations, for example, when she was not satisfied with a fitness evaluation.”

“The strong inference was made that all were false allegations,” the VA official wrote. A fitness evaluation in the military is the equivalent of a civilian performance review.

In an interview with The Post, Goldstein disputed she had made numerous complaints. She said she filed a formal complaint with the Navy just once, before her experience at the VA hospital. The Post typically does not name people who report a sexual assault but Goldstein has spoken publicly about her experiences.

The information given to Takano’s committee was done anonymously, but The Post has determined it was sent by a senior VA official. The allegations were first reported by ProPublica.

Wilkie suggested to several people on his staff, including his public affairs chief, that they use the information he collected to discredit Goldstein, a current and former senior official said. They declined.

Wilkie denied making inquiries into Goldstein’s past. “These allegations are false. Period,” James Hutton, VA’s assistant secretary for public affairs, said. “Secretary Wilkie did not and never would do anything of this sort.”

“VA takes all allegations of sexual assault seriously, which is why the department immediately reported Ms. Goldstein’s allegations to VA’s independent inspector general as well as the deputy attorney general,” Hutton said.

Inspector General Michael Missal said he is reviewing Takano’s request to investigate. “We take this matter seriously and are considering the request at this time,” he said.

The Post was unable to independently determine whether Wilkie or anyone on his behalf asked to access Goldstein’s service records. “As a matter of policy, the DoD would not support any such improper request if such a request were received,” Defense Department press secretary Alyssa Farah said.

A Takano spokeswoman, Jenni Geurink, said in a statement that the committee “has received details from an individual with knowledge of decision-making by senior VA leaders that shows they attempted to gather ‘damaging information’ about a member of our staff and may have improperly utilized government time and resources to do so.”

“In light of these developments,” she wrote, “the Committee is considering all investigative options to determine to what extent VA leaders attempted to tarnish a staff member’s character and spread false information about her past in retaliation for her reporting of a sexual assault at the D.C. VA Medical Center.”

Wilkie's letter

As Wilkie delved deeper into Goldstein’s military service, he also told his staff he had invited Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) a former Navy SEAL officer, to his office, according to the current and former VA officials. Crenshaw and Goldstein had once deployed on the same Middle East mission.

After Crenshaw’s visit, Wilkie said the congressman agreed with his findings that Goldstein had filed multiple complaints of harassment and assault, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting.

Justin Discigil, a spokesman for Crenshaw, denied the congressman had “ever been asked” about the Andrea Goldstein case.

“The notion that anyone at VA reached out to Congressman Crenshaw to dig up dirt on this staffer has no basis in reality,” Discigil wrote in an email. “It never happened, and Mr. Crenshaw has never been contacted by anyone at VA about this case.”

Hutton said Wilkie and Crenshaw had breakfast last fall, but Andrea Goldstein “did not come up.”

Wilkie’s search for damaging information on Goldstein, according to the sources, took place as the inspector general was conducting a formal investigation into her sexual assault complaint.

After that case was closed, Wilkie issued a public letter to Takano referring to “unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff” that “could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.”

The wording of the letter seemed to disparage Goldstein. Several senior VA officials had urged Wilkie to use more neutral language, fearing it would look like he was blaming a victim of sexual misconduct, according to current and former agency officials. Wilkie overruled them.

Wilkie’s letter prompted an angry rebuttal from Takano, and from Missal, who disputed Wilkie’s characterization of Goldstein’s allegations. Missal said just because no charges were filed did not mean her claims were unsubstantiated. The man in the incident was a hospital vendor.

Hutton, the spokesman, on Friday said Wilkie regretted the language he used in the letter.

[VA chief Wilkie calls deputy’s firing a ‘simple business decision’ and says he is not satisfied with resolution in case of a senior congressional aide who said she was sexually assaulted at VA hospital in Washington]

Goldstein said that in 2014 she filed a formal complaint with the Navy when her department head sexually harassed her multiple times. She said he was removed from his post. She called sexual misconduct a “routine experience” for women in the military.

Goldstein said she deployed with Crenshaw once to the Middle East. Her harassment case took place after that, she said, and Crenshaw “had no direct knowledge of any of what took place.”

In a first-person account on the website Jezebel this week, Goldstein said she felt betrayed that Wilkie “was implying that a fellow Navy veteran was a liar” when he called the D.C. incident an “unsubstantiated claim.”

“He used coded language, but the words still stung,” she wrote. “The Secretary of the second largest federal agency knew how his words would resonate. He was implying that a fellow Navy veteran was a liar.”

Female vets upset

Wilkie and Takano have had a tense relationship. Takano has accused Wilkie of trying to privatize VA system. Wilkie has not cooperated with many committee requests for information and has several times refused to appear at committee hearings.

Late last year the leaders sparred over a bill to stop the high rate of veteran suicides, with Wilkie pressuring Takano to allow outside groups to provide mental health services at taxpayer expense.

Wilkie’s handling of the Goldstein case has rankled advocates for female veterans who say they are fighting routine harassment, both in the military and at VA medical centers. About 10 percent of the veteran population are women and 16 percent of the active-duty military.

“If true, the actions Secretary Wilkie is alleged to have been taken in response to complaints by a VA patient are unprecedented and chilling,” said Kayla Williams, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former director of VA’s center for women veterans.

Williams, a former Army sergeant, said Wilkie’s actions trigger “deeply unpleasant memories of attitudes expressed by military men about women while I was serving. I’m truly shaken about what seems to be a shockingly political response to a patient complaint.”

Wilkie, going back to his Senate confirmation hearing, has said VA needs to improve services for women, the fastest-growing segment of the veteran population. At an appearance at the National Press Club this week, he touted the agency’s success under his watch at drawing a record number of women to use VA health system. He acknowledged harassment is still a problem for women in some agency facilities.

Hutton, the Wilkie spokesman, said Friday that Missal should let agency and committee officials know if his investigation into the incident at the D.C. medical center found any wrongdoing, “so the department can take action to protect and safeguard our patients.”

Missal said this week the Goldstein case is closed. After a case is closed, it is common practice not to release a confidential internal report of investigation, not even through a public records request — or to a Cabinet member.