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VA Secretary Robert Wilkie tried to discredit House aide who alleged sexual assault, watchdog finds

VA chief faces inspector general probe
VA chief faces inspector general probe 06:50

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie attempted to discredit a House aide who alleged she was sexually assaulted inside a VA hospital, the department's Office of the Inspector General found. Wilkie "privately disparaged the veteran," according to a report issued Thursday, and influenced other VA officials with his unusual participation in the assault investigation.

Six days after the veteran, an aide to Congressman Mark Takano of California, reported her assault, the secretary personally involved himself in the investigation, according to the report. "According to the medical center director, Secretary Wilkie made a surprise visit to the facility, read the veteran's statement about the incident, and commented to the director that the statement was 'similar to other complaints she's made other places,' or words to that effect," the report states. 

Witnesses testified that the secretary made similar remarks during meetings in his office, and once referred to her as "'the Takano staffer whose glamor shot was in the New York Times.'" 

"Eight VA senior personnel told OIG investigators about discussions in Secretary Wilkie's presence that involved the veteran's purported history of filing complaints, whether specific to prior sexual assault allegations or similar issues during her military service. Six of these witnesses in sworn testimony attributed the remarks to Secretary Wilkie himself," the report states. "The inference was that the complaints were unfounded."

Wilkie denied ever "investigating the veteran, questioning her credibility, or knowing whether she had made prior complaints" during his sworn testimony to the inspector general's office. 

According to testimony gathered by the inspector general's office, the aide's visible role in combating sexual harassment and assaults at the agency's medical centers made several VA officials immediately skeptical of her claim. In addition to her work under Takano, who chairs the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, she served on the committee's Women Veterans Task Force, which aims "to promote inclusivity and equitable access to resources, benefits, and healthcare for women veterans." 

"Earlier on the same day that she reported being sexually assaulted, the veteran had participated in a bill-drafting session aimed at reducing the incidence of sexual harassment and assaults in VA medical centers, a coincidence which led several senior VA officials to view her allegation suspiciously," reads the report. 

The IG concluded Wilkie's influence allowed VA officials to publicly disparage the aide. 

"The tone set by Secretary Wilkie was at minimum unprofessional and at worst provided the basis for senior officials to put out information to national reporters to question the credibility and background of the veteran who filed the sexual assault complaint," according to the report. 

Andrea Goldstein, the veteran who made the complaint, said in a statement posted to Twitter on Thursday that Wilkie's response to her allegation was "not to take ownership and ensure accountability, but to investigate and impugn my character."

"The millions of women and men who have experienced or witnessed sexual violence in the military recognized Wilkie's actions as horrifyingly familiar: refuse to take or enforce accountability, blame, shame, and make the victim the problem," she wrote. "In this shocking abuse of power, Secretary Wilkie publicly revictimized the very people that the agency that he leads is supposed to serve."

The IG said it issued its report on Thursday in response to push back from the VA that stopped its investigation from moving further. "The OIG's investigation was hindered by the refusal of several senior VA officials to cooperate with requests for follow-up interviews to clarify and resolve conflicts that arose when additional information was gathered after their initial interview," reads the report. In addition to Wilkie, Chief of Staff Pamela Powers, Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs James Hutton, and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Curtis Cashour, all refused to cooperate. 

The IG ultimately decided that compelling interviews "would be futile" because it would require Wilkie's own authorization. "The OIG determined that the most effective path forward was to conclude its work and issue this report without further delay," the report states. 

In a response to the report included in the document and provided in response to a CBS News request for comment, Wilkie criticized the watchdog's intentions and reiterated that the inspector general could not "substantiate that I sought to investigate or asked others to investigate the Veteran," adding, "that's because these allegations are false."

"Having failed to prove the false allegations that served as the basis for this investigation, the IG shifted its focus to policing and critiquing confidential internal deliberations among VA staff. In doing so, the IG established a strawman in which any discussion or scrutiny of public and high-profile allegations against the department, or a general desire to know the truth are somehow improper," the secretary wrote. "This is an impossible standard that no organization — including the inspector general — could meet. And if any organization had its confidential internal deliberations cherry-picked and packaged into a public report, the result would no doubt be similar to this one."

While investigators acknowledged that it could not "substantiate the allegation that Secretary Wilkie investigated or asked others to investigate the veteran," the IG did conclude that VA leaders, Wilkie included, "did not take appropriate administrative and other corrective actions" in response to the aide's allegation, "despite having access to relevant information."

According to the report, VA officials investigating the assault did not consider past complaints about the alleged perpetrator, a VA contractor. "These files included a report that a female VA employee had complained in May 2019 of being repeatedly sexually harassed by the same contractor as well as information about the contractor's criminal history," reads the report. "VA officials did not examine this information, readily available in VA's files."

"VA leaders failed to make meaningful efforts to determine what corrective measures may be needed in response to the sexual assault complaint, while engaging the media to focus on the complainant," the report concluded. "Together with statements made by Secretary Wilkie and other leaders, this approach points to a lack of genuine commitment by senior leaders to address the serious issues raised by the veteran's complaint."

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