Watchdog faults VA chief over handling of sex assault report

FILE - In this July 7, 2020 file photo, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Richard Wilkie speaks at the National Press Club in Washington.  Confronted with a sexual assault allegation at a veterans hospital, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie repeatedly sought to discredit the female congressional staffer who made the complaint. His staff also worked to spread negative information about her while ignoring known problems of harassment at the facility. That's according to a blistering investigation released Thursday by VA's internal watchdog.  (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)
FILE - In this July 7, 2020 file photo, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Richard Wilkie speaks at the National Press Club in Washington. Confronted with a sexual assault allegation at a veterans hospital, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie repeatedly sought to discredit the female congressional staffer who made the complaint. His staff also worked to spread negative information about her while ignoring known problems of harassment at the facility. That's according to a blistering investigation released Thursday by VA's internal watchdog. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – Confronted with a sexual assault allegation at a veterans hospital, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie repeatedly sought to discredit the congressional aide who made the complaint and his staff worked to spread negative information about her while ignoring known problems of harassment at the facility, according to an investigative report released Thursday.

The 47-page report by the VA’s internal watchdog paints a portrait of a department led by senior officials who were indifferent, if not hostile, to the issues at the department’s flagship medical center in the nation’s capital. It found that Wilkie acted unprofessionally if not unethically, in the case of Navy veteran Andrea Goldstein, a policy adviser to Democratic Rep. Mark Takano of California, chairman of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.

Associated Press policy is not to name victims or possible victims of sexual assault. Goldstein agreed to be publicly identified.

Wilkie and other senior officials declined to fully cooperate with the investigation. For that reason, VA Inspector General Michael Missal said he could not conclude whether Wilkie had acted illegally, allegedly by personally digging into the woman's past and working with a Republican congressman to dismiss her as a repeat complainer.

Wilkie said the allegations are false. “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,” Wilkie said.

Takano called on Wilkie to resign.

Goldstein said the report confirmed that Wilkie's response “was not to take ownership and ensure accountability, but to investigate me and attempt to impugn my character.” She said she hopes Wilkie's successor ”will center and prioritize eradicating sexual violence at VA, and actively work to gain women veterans’ trust."

The findings are a black eye for a department that has seen improved performance and veterans’ satisfaction with VA care under the Trump administration. But there also has been persistent turmoil, ethical challenges and disarray in its leadership. The department has received particular criticism for an unwelcoming culture for female veterans, the military’s fastest growing subgroup.