And instead of focusing on the hospital contractor who veteran Andrea Goldstein told authorities “bumped his entire body against mine and told me I looked like I needed a smile and a good time,” VA’s senior leaders did the opposite, investigators found, and embarked on a campaign to discredit Goldstein. The contractor did not have credentials to enter the hospital and had been the subject of a previous sexual harassment complaint from a VA employee.
The inspector general did not substantiate that Wilkie formally investigated Goldstein’s past by improperly accessing her electronic health and military records or asked others to do so. But the secretary’s attempt to denigrate her was clear, the report said.
“The tone set by Secretary Wilkie was at minimum unprofessional and at worst provided the basis for VA leaders’ attempts to undermine the veteran’s credibility,” the report said.
The 68-page report caps a saga that has embroiled Wilkie, Goldstein and Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, in a standoff since the fall of 2019. That’s when Goldstein, the committee’s senior policy adviser on female veterans, reported that a man groped and propositioned her as she waited in line to buy a snack in the hospital’s main lobby.
Goldstein’s complaint highlighted a major struggle for the veterans agency as it tries to serve the health needs of women, the fastest-growing veteran population. Female veterans regularly report sexual harassment and assault at VA clinics and hospitals.
The report said VA’s response to Goldstein’s complaint hurt the agency’s mission.
“Using denigrating remarks and questioning the credibility of a veteran who reported being sexually assaulted, and then failing to fully explore the facts, is . . . contrary to the ongoing missions of improving VA and of serving the veteran community with respect,” wrote James Mitchell, deputy inspector general for special reviews.
Wilkie, in a scathing response to the report, wrote, “After nearly a year of investigation, interviews with 65 people and analysis of nearly 1.5 million documents, VA’s inspector general cannot substantiate that I sought to investigate or asked others to investigate the Veteran. That’s because these allegations are false. What’s more, the IG could not identify a single instance in which any VA employee violated any rule, regulation or policy.”
Wilkie described conversations about the Goldstein case as “confidential internal deliberations among VA staff” and said they should have not have been a part of Missal’s inquiry. The inspector general “established a strawman in which any discussion or scrutiny of public and high-profile allegations against the department, or a general desire to know the truth are somehow improper,” Wilkie wrote.
Missal’s office answered, “Secretary Wilkie’s comments on this report do not respond substantively to its findings. Instead they mischaracterize key facts and fail to acknowledge the deficiencies in VA’s response to the veteran’s complaint. Notably, his comments do not seek to correct or supplement the findings.”
Takano accused Wilkie of betraying the public’s trust and called on him and his senior staff to resign.
“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,” the chairman said in a statement, “they betray the public trust and as a result disqualify themselves from all future public service.”
He called the report “emblematic of the well-documented issue of sexual harassment and assault that has festered in our military and polluted the culture at VA.”
Goldstein said in a statement that many female veterans told her the incident and its handling had “permanently severed” their trust in VA.
“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,” Goldstein said. “In this shocking abuse of power, Secretary Wilkie publicly re-victimized the very people that the agency that he leads is supposed to serve.”
Wilkie also drew rebukes from top Republicans in Congress who oversee the agency.
The report shows “not only a disappointing response from VA leadership [to a reported assault in a VA facility], but also a failure by those leaders to fulfill their duty in responding to an important [inspector general] inquiry,” Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (Kan.) said in a statement. Rep. Phil Roe (Tenn.), the House VA committee’s top Republican, and Rep. Mike Bost (Ill.), its incoming ranking member, issued similar statements.
After Goldstein reported she was assaulted, Wilkie quickly asked Missal’s office to investigate. In January, federal authorities declined to file charges in the sexual assault case. But Wilkie, who had tangled with Takano for months on policy issues and the committee’s oversight of his agency, immediately took a personal interest in the case, investigators found.
Missal’s investigation was hindered, the report says, by the refusal of Wilkie, acting deputy secretary Pamela Powers and his two top press officials, James Hutton and Curt Cashour, to cooperate with requests for follow-up interviews.
Within hours of receiving word about Goldstein’s Sept. 20 complaint, “senior VA officials began communicating about whether the veteran had previously complained about verbal abuse from a VA provider at another facility,” the report said. Wilkie speculated in an email that Takano was “laying the grounds for a spectacle.” VA leaders’ suspicions centered on Goldstein’s work on sexual assault issues for the committee and on initial reports of a lack of eyewitnesses.
“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,” the report said.
In interviews with investigators, Wilkie denied investigating Goldstein, questioning her credibility or knowing whether she had made prior assault complaints in the military.
But investigators found that Wilkie told his staff that Goldstein had made similar complaints of sexual assault in the Navy. Goldstein has denied making multiple complaints about sexual misconduct
Eight senior agency officials described discussions in Wilkie’s presence “that involved the veteran’s purported history of filing complaints, whether specific to prior sexual assault allegations or similar issues during her military service,” the report found. Six of the witnesses in sworn testimony attributed the remarks to Wilkie himself. “The inference was that the complaints were unfounded,” the report said.
Cashour pitched a story to a journalist that would impugn Goldstein’s character, telling the reporter, “You may want to look into — see — if she’s done this sort of thing in the past,” according to the report.
Multiple witnesses testified to investigators that Wilkie told them Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) had given him damaging information that Goldstein filed frivolous complaints when they served in the same Navy command. That contradicts the congressman’s prior statement that he never spoke with the secretary about Goldstein.
A spokesman for Crenshaw did not respond to a request for comment.
The report describes “an unusual level of engagement by VA senior officials in an ongoing criminal investigation,” as VA police who met with Wilkie and his team told investigators. This “created pressure on VA police and focused their attention on the veteran herself.”
VA senior officials traveled to the medical center to view any available video footage of the incident, although the surveillance cameras in the area were not working. A VA police officer recalled that a visiting VA official suggested that Goldstein may have “made a complaint similar to this before.”
The police ran a background check on her and circulated the results — which multiple VA police officers considered unusual. This occurred two days before a background check was run on the contractor accused of sexual assault by the veteran.
Less than a week after Goldstein reported being sexually assaulted, Wilkie made a surprise visit to the D.C. medical center himself, the report said. He and Powers met with the medical director. They discussed the case in detail.
Wilkie read the written statement provided to VA police by Goldstein, detailing her account of the incident. The medical center director told investigators that after Wilkie finished reading the statement, “he commented that the veteran’s statement was ‘similar to other complaints she’s made other places,’ or words to that effect.”
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the inspector general’s office told federal prosecutors this fall of possible criminal conduct by Wilkie stemming from the investigation. The Justice Department has not pursued a case against Wilkie.
Missal’s office did not make a formal criminal referral to seek a prosecution. The discussions centered on whether the inspector general was authorized to compel testimony from a senior official who had stopped cooperating in the investigation into Wilkie’s conduct, a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive law enforcement matter, said.
When federal authorities decide not to move forward with criminal charges, inspectors general can compel people under investigation to fully cooperate if they notify them that a case is not subject to prosecution, according to inspector general guidelines. That effectively grants them immunity for statements that may implicate them.
Prosecutors told the inspector general’s office they did not think there was enough evidence presented to bring charges, according to two federal officials with direct knowledge of the case, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.