An inspector general’s report released on Thursday determined that Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and senior leaders at the department doubted the credibility of a veteran’s sexual assault claim at D.C. Medical Center, the primary VA hospital in the capital.
In September 2019, Navy veteran Andrea Goldstein reported that a hospital contractor “bumped his entire body against mine and told me ‘I looked like I needed a smile and a good time.’” The Veterans Affairs inspector general’s office found that Wilkie and top staffers at the department initially tried to discredit Goldstein instead of investigating the contractor, who had previously been the subject of a different sexual harassment complaint from a VA employee.
According to the IG report, senior leaders at the embattled department began questioning the veracity of the complaint hours after being informed of its existence. According to the Washington Post, their “suspicions centered on Goldstein’s work on sexual assault issues,” meaning that her status as an expert on challenges faced by female veterans made her allegations suspect. (Goldstein is the senior policy adviser for the Women Veterans Task Force on the House Veterans Affairs Committee.) A background check was also run on Goldstein two days before one was run on the contractor who allegedly assaulted her.
Though Wilkie has denied investigating Goldstein, the report found six witnesses who said that he once questioned Goldstein’s “purported history of filing complaints, whether specific to prior sexual assault allegations or similar issues during her military service.” The report later added: “The inference was that the complaints were unfounded.” While Inspector General Michael Missa reportedly told federal prosecutors this fall that Wilkie’s campaign to undermine Goldstein may have involved criminal conduct, the Department of Justice has not so far pursued a case against Wilkie.
As a result of Wilkie’s apparent attempts to smear her, Goldstein said in a statement that many female veterans she has spoken with told her that the “permanently severed” their trust in the 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.”
Though the report was published just six weeks before Joe Biden moves forward with the nomination of Denis McDonough as the head of the VA, three major veterans advocacy groups —Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Vietnam Veterans of America, and American Legion — called for Wilkie’s resignation over the weekend. “It is unfair to expect accountability from the nearly 400,000 VA employees and not demand the same from its top executive,” American Legion’s national commander Bill Oxford said. “It is clear that Secretary Robert Wilkie failed to meet the standard that the veteran who came forward with the complaint deserved.”