A day after the Veterans Affairs Inspector General blasted VA Secretary Robert Wilkie for his handling of a sexual assault allegation at a department hospital, most of the country’s major veterans organizations called for his immediate firing, citing a lack of confidence in his leadership.
“Secretary Wilkie and several members of his executive staff violated the trust of a fellow veteran who came forth with serious allegations of sexual assault,” said Veterans of Foreign Wars Executive Director B.J. Lawrence in a statement Friday night.
“Instead of taking this veteran’s allegations seriously, the Secretary and his key staff sought to discredit and vilify the veteran. We will not tolerate this behavior at our VA.”
VFW’s statement followed similar ones from Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Minority Veterans of America, the NYC Veterans Alliance and the Modern Military Association of America.
Officials from the Service Women’s Action Network issued a statement saying that senior leaders in the department “cannot be relied upon to provide safe, welcoming medical care to our women veterans because … they are privileging the continuance of both sexual assault and sexual harassment” at VA facilities.
At least three members of Congress also called for Wilkie’s resignation following the Inspector General report, including House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., who said that actions of senior department leaders “betray the public trust and as a result disqualify [them] from all future public service.”
White House and VA officials did not respond to questions related to the resignation demands.
At issue is Wilkie’s response to allegations in September 2019 from a staffer on Takano’s committee — Navy reservist Andrea Goldstein — who alleged she was assaulted and verbally abused by a man in a public area of the Washington D.C. VA medical center while she was visiting the hospital.
The VA Secretary promised a full, independent investigation into the allegations. However, the IG report released Thursday said and other senior leaders instead worked to discredit Goldstein, looking into her background and spreading rumors about her honesty.
One of the most damning revelations in the report was that VA police ran a background check on Goldstein two days before running one on a suspect she had identified as her attacker. That man (not identified in the report) had prior sexual harassment claims filed against him, but ultimately was not charged with any crimes.
Wilkie accused both Takano and the Inspector General of politicizing the issue, and of searching for ways to smear VA leadership despite finding no evidence of crimes. In a statement Thursday, Wilkie criticized the Inspector General’s office as “”more dedicated to scoring political points than improving the department.”
But a day later, numerous veterans groups sided with the Inspector General over Wilkie.
“The unconscionable details laid out in this report are just another sign of the pervasive culture that allows for sexual assault and harassment, as well as retaliation against those who raise these issues, to continue within the VA,” said Carl Blake, executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, in a statement Friday.
“They must be addressed in order to effect systemic change. We call on the President of the United States to fire Secretary Robert Wilkie, if he doesn’t resign. Additionally, the senior leaders who enabled this to happen and allowed this culture to fester should be held accountable.”
Along with Wilkie, the report also criticizes the behavior of Deputy Secretary Pamela Powers, acting Chief of Staff Brooks Tucker, Principal Deputy General Counsel William Hudson Jr., Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs James Hutton, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Curt Cashour.
Prior to Wilkie, two of VA’s previous three secretaries were forced out of office due to scandal.
Wilkie was confirmed by the Senate in summer 2018, following the firing of former VA Secretary David Shulkin, who was criticized by the Inspector General for his decision to mix personal travel with official, overseas business.
However, Shulkin asserted that his firing was actually connected to infighting with political operatives within the White House and VA, including Cashour.
VA Secretary Eric Shinseki resigned in early 2014 amid criticism of a department wait time scandal, where administrators at multiple department health care sites gamed patient appointment data in order to preserve financial bonuses.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.