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Veterans groups demand VA Secretary Wilkie resign after scathing report that he tried to discredit assault victim

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie speaks at the National Press Club in Washington in July.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie speaks at the National Press Club in Washington in July. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) called on Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie to resign Saturday, following a report that he tried to smear a congressional aide who said she was assaulted at a VA hospital.

“The VA Inspector General report makes clear that Secretary Wilkie engaged in an extremely disturbing cover-up campaign of sexual assault against a veteran,” Pelosi said in a statement. “He has lost the trust and confidence to serve, and he must immediately resign.”

The country’s leading veterans groups — including the American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America — echoed the call, saying that Wilkie had breached their trust and could no longer effectively lead an agency responsible for the care of 9 million veterans.

“It is unfair to expect accountability from the nearly 400,000 VA employees and not demand the same from its top executive,” wrote American Legion National Commander James W. “Bill” Oxford. “Wilkie failed to meet the standard that the veteran who came forward with the complaint deserved. By the promises set forth by his own department, the American Legion believes Secretary Wilkie should resign.”

VA chief Wilkie worked to discredit House aide who reported sexual assault at agency hospital, watchdog finds

Oxford also called on acting deputy secretary Pamela Powers and top public affairs officials James Hutton and Curt Cashour to step down after Inspector General Michael Missal’s report found that they were aware of Wilkie’s effort to discredit the veteran.

Even Concerned Veterans of America, one of the most muscular arms of the conservative Koch network and a Trump administration ally, criticized the secretary and his senior aides, saying that “VA leaders should always put the veteran and the integrity of the institution ahead of themselves.”

A White House spokesman declined to comment.

VA press secretary Christina Noel said in a statement that Wilkie “will continue to lead the department” and cited “landmark improvements in Veterans’ trust, quality of care and employee satisfaction” as well as a “historic response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Since Wilkie has just weeks left in his term, the growing calls for his resignation may be mostly symbolic. But they highlight the way the veterans community is changing.

While the overwhelming number of veterans still hail from the Vietnam era, a new generation of those who served in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is increasingly vocal and digitally savvy. Additionally, women are the fastest-growing veterans group, and the new inspector general report casts doubt on VA’s public pledge to support women.

Wilkie, 58, has faced criticism before. Last summer, he rejected calls to remove gravestones bearing Nazi swastikas at a pair of federal veterans cemeteries, saying it was his duty to preserve the historical markers. (He eventually relented, under pressure.)

He has doubled down on his opposition to updating VA’s motto so that it’s gender-neutral.

And Wilkie once defended the use of Confederate symbols, an issue that came to a head once again Friday with Senate passage of a sweeping military policy bill that would require Confederate names be stripped from American military bases in defiance of President Trump’s veto threats.

“He is wildly out of step with the times,” Jeremy Butler, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said of Wilkie, an Air Force veteran who still serves as a colonel in the Air Force Reserve.

"It's not like he retired from the military 20 years ago," Butler said. He called sexual misconduct a "black and white issue."

VA watchdog informs prosecutors of possible criminal conduct in probe of House staffer who reported sexual assault at D.C. hospital

The calls for Wilkie’s resignation come after a 10-month investigation from the department’s inspector general, which found that Wilkie repeatedly sought to dig up dirt on Navy veteran Andrea Goldstein, a senior policy adviser to House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano (D-Calif.) after she reported in September 2019 that a man groped and propositioned her as she waited in line to buy a snack at the VA hospital in D.C.

Wilkie and his senior aides spread false and disparaging claims about Goldstein in and outside the agency, investigators found, as they ignored an often hostile atmosphere of harassment for female veterans at the medical center.

Wilkie told his staff that Goldstein had filed frivolous complaints of assault in the Navy and that Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) had given him some of this damaging information from when they served in the same command.

Wilkie, Powers and other senior agency officials refused to fully cooperate with Missal’s inquiry, the report said. The lack of cooperation impeded investigators from determining whether Wilkie had violated government policies or laws as he tried to discredit Goldstein.

Wilkie this past week denied wrongdoing in a response to the report and described conversations about the Goldstein case as “confidential internal deliberations among VA staff” that were none of the investigators’ business. The report did not substantiate that Wilkie formally investigated Goldstein’s past by improperly accessing her military records.

Goldstein’s underlying assault case was closed in January without criminal charges.

The report drew widespread condemnation from lawmakers from both parties, including from Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jerry Moran (R-Kan.).

Takano immediately called on Wilkie to resign.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that the inspector general’s office alerted 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, said a person familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive law enforcement matter.

Correction: This story has been updated to more accurately reflect the inspector general’s findings about the role of Wilkie’s senior staff in his alleged effort to discredit Goldstein.