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VA watchdog told prosecutors his probe of Secretary Wilkie’s effort to discredit House staffer turned up possible criminal conduct

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie in March.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie in March. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

The Veterans Affairs inspector general informed federal prosecutors this fall of possible criminal conduct by Secretary Robert Wilkie stemming from an investigation into whether he worked to discredit a congressional aide who said she was sexually assaulted, according to three current and former federal officials.

The Justice Department has not pursued a case against Wilkie, a former senior Pentagon official who has served since 2018 as President Trump’s second veterans chief. Prosecutors told Inspector General Michael J. Missal they did not think there was enough evidence presented to bring charges, according to two federal officials with direct knowledge of the case.

But Missal’s outreach to prosecutors suggests the seriousness of a probe that has engulfed the secretary and his top political staff for almost a year, these people said.

Wilkie is the latest member of the Trump Cabinet to come under ethics scrutiny. The previous heads of five Cabinet agencies — Environmental Protection Agency, Health and Human Services, Interior, Labor and VA — were fired or forced to resign after investigations into improper travel, lavish spending, ethical lapses and management decisions eroded White House confidence in them.

Missal launched his inquiry into Wilkie’s conduct in February after a request from House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.), who said Wilkie had worked to damage the credibility of his senior policy adviser, Navy veteran Andrea Goldstein.

In fall 2019, after Goldstein said a man groped and propositioned her in the cafe in the main lobby of VA’s flagship medical center in the District, Wilkie inquired with military officials about her military record, The Washington Post previously reported.

Missal’s report, scheduled for release Thursday, is expected to confirm the secretary’s repeated efforts to discredit Goldstein, both in and outside the agency, according to two people familiar with its conclusions.

“This is a veteran,” said one official, who with the others requested anonymity to discuss details of the investigation, “and you’re supposed to treat them with dignity and respect. By calling [her] credibility into question, you’re discouraging others from coming forward.”

In response to questions from The Post, Wilkie said in a statement that he had done nothing improper and lashed out at Missal’s investigation.

“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,” Wilkie said.

Wilkie accused Missal of cherry-picking confidential internal deliberations to make the agency look bad. “VA takes all allegations of sexual assault seriously,” Wilkie said.

Missal declined to comment.

The Post confirmed some details of Wilkie’s effort to damage Goldstein’s credibility by claiming to his staff that she had filed multiple sexual assault complaints while in the service. Goldstein has denied making multiple complaints.

Interviews and emails reviewed by The Post show that Wilkie and his senior staff pursued information about Goldstein’s credibility and military career.

In recent weeks, the inspector general’s office informed federal prosecutors for the District, with whom it had jointly investigated Goldstein’s assault claim last year, that they thought they had evidence that Wilkie violated the law, the individuals familiar with the case said.

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

One possible violation was interfering with the criminal investigation into whether Goldstein was assaulted. Another was that Wilkie perjured himself in his testimony to investigators with the inspector general’s office.

In one instance, Wilkie told his public affairs chief, James Hutton: “See what Curt can do with this,’’ referring to deputy public affairs chief Curt Cashour, according to a former VA official who witnessed the interaction.

The understanding was that Cashour should pitch the story to reporters that Goldstein might have made up the assault and had a history of filing frivolous sexual misconduct claims in the Navy. Spreading false information about someone who has reported a possible crime can be considered interfering with an investigation.

Cashour appears to have been unsuccessful in persuading any reporter to pursue a story on Goldstein’s background. Hutton could not be reached for comment. Cashour did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for Michael R. Sherwin, acting U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, declined to comment.

As the inspector general’s inquiry was underway, Wilkie has explored a Senate run for an open seat in his home state of North Carolina, where Sen. Richard Burr (R) has announced that he will not seek reelection in 2022, three people familiar with the secretary’s plans said. A VA spokeswoman said Wednesday that Wilkie does not plan to run for the Senate.

Over the summer, investigators conducted a first round of interviews with Wilkie, acting deputy secretary Pamela Powers and the rest of his team of senior political appointees. Wilkie had delayed the interviews for several months, telling Missal he was concentrating on the novel coronavirus, which afflicted thousands of veterans.

As more information came to their attention, investigators asked to interview Wilkie and his senior team a second time in the fall, a common practice in complex cases. All declined a second round of interviews, according to three people familiar with their decision.

Power struggle

Missal’s report will be the next chapter in a saga that began in September 2019, when Goldstein, senior policy adviser for the Women Veterans Task Force on the House committee, reported that a man slammed his body against her as she waited in line to buy a snack in the main lobby of VA’s Washington hospital.

Wilkie quickly asked Missal’s office to investigate.

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 is likely to cast light on Wilkie’s long-running confrontation with Takano, who has led the House panel since 2019.

Takano, who leads a committee that has historically been among the most bipartisan in Congress, wrote Wilkie a letter seeking an arrest in the Goldstein case. Shortly after the incident, he toured the D.C. hospital and held a news conference to highlight the struggles of female veterans. He demanded that VA do more to protect them.

The case escalated from there.

Inspector general to probe whether VA chief Wilkie tried to discredit Democratic aide who reported sexual assault

Wilkie and Takano were already engaged in a power struggle involving policy issues and oversight of the agency. Wilkie had stopped cooperating with many committee requests for information and was refusing to appear or send his staff to testify at committee hearings.

While Takano saw the Goldstein case as bringing attention to an issue championed by Democrats, the secretary took umbrage at his involvement.

Wilkie concluded that he had been set up — by Takano and by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who wanted to make a member of the Trump Cabinet look bad, according to three people familiar with his thinking.

“He believed it was a left-wing conspiracy led by Pelosi,” said a former VA official who worked closely with Wilkie.

Wilkie had the staff at the District hospital pull surveillance tape from the Goldstein incident.

“Any news on the video footage?” Tammy Czarnecki, assistant deputy undersecretary for health for administrative operations, asked the hospital canteen chief three days after the incident, according to an email obtained by the ethics group American Oversight through a public records request. “The 10th floor is waiting for an answer.” (The senior staff offices are on the 10th floor of VA headquarters.)

But video cameras at the hospital that might have captured the episode were not working, even though they had just been installed, the response showed, impeding the investigation.

'Ask me in the morning'

Wilkie pieced together Goldstein’s background: He and Goldstein served as intelligence officers in the Navy Reserve in Virginia at different times. He looked into whom she served with. An intriguing name came up in his search: Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.), a former Navy SEAL officer who once deployed with Goldstein to the Middle East.

Wilkie and Crenshaw had breakfast in the secretary’s office in early December 2019. Before the meeting, Wilkie wrote an email to Powers, his then-chief of staff, and Tucker, his then-chief of legislative affairs, about a previous conversation with the congressman about Goldstein.

“Ask me in the morning what Congressman Crenshaw said about the Takano staffer whose glamour shot was in the New York Times,” Wilkie wrote on Dec. 4. The Times reported on Goldstein’s assault claim last September.

Spokesmen for both have said the meeting covered veterans’ benefits and that Goldstein’s name did not come up. Crenshaw has said he has not discussed Goldstein with Wilkie.

The content of the email, which was reviewed by The Post, was blacked out from the public records request.

Shortly after the medical center incident, Dave Balland, deputy assistant secretary for congressional affairs, told senior agency leaders at a meeting that Wilkie had obtained information from the Pentagon indicating that Goldstein was a serial filer of complaints in the Navy, according to a meeting participant.

Tucker told Balland to pipe down, this person recalled, but said the Goldstein case was an attempt to make Wilkie look bad.

Goldstein has disputed filing multiple complaints that she was sexually harassed or assaulted during her military service. She has 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 January, federal authorities declined to file charges in the sexual assault case.

Wilkie then said in a letter to Takano that after speaking with Missal, he concluded that Takano and his staff had made “unsubstantiated claims” about the case “that could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.”

The language set off a firestorm in the veterans community and on Capitol Hill by appearing to imply that Goldstein had not been assaulted. Missal felt misinterpreted by Wilkie and issued an unusual rebuke of the secretary: “Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the department that the allegations were unsubstantiated,” Missal wrote. “Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean that the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated.”

Wilkie later said he regretted his characterization of the case.

Takano used the terms “shockingly tone-deaf” and “outrageous” and accused Wilkie of tolerating a “hostile culture at VA” for female veterans.

Meanwhile, as the Trump administration prepares to exit and President-elect Joe Biden considers candidates for VA secretary, his transition team has said that a top priority is repairing VA’s relationship with Congress.

In recent weeks, Wilkie has also stopped cooperating with the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee after Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the committee’s top Democrat, raised concerns that the secretary’s travel before the election to battleground states was a violation of the law banning politicking by government officials.