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Female VA Employees Find Little Recourse In Harassment Complaints

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) -- A KPIX 5 investigation into claims of sexual harassment at Veterans Administration clinics in the Bay Area is expanding. Yet another female employee has come out of the shadows to tell her story after seeing our reports.

It's a story we've been hearing all too often: Female employees of several Bay Area VA clinics getting harassed by male supervisors.

"He would just make little comments. 'Why you look really pretty today,'" said Connie Swafford Abalos. "Then it would go to talking about my breast size, talking about if I had a skirt on, 'Oh, do you have panties on underneath that skirt? I would like to see what is underneath that skirt.'"

Abalos the third VA employee to come forward to KPIX 5 with her story of a boss who not only harassed her, but who she says ended up assaulting her.

"I was cornered in his office to where he tried to grope me, he tried to kiss me. He literally exposed himself to me, making snide comments," remembered Abalos. "Asking me, 'Oh, isn't this beautiful?' Talking about his private area."

A second sexual harassment victim told us a similar story about a different supervisor, named Darryl Milburn, at the same VA hospital. She said Milburn has been stalking her for years.

She said when she tried to get reassigned to a new position, her requests fell on deaf ears.

"He said he wanted to talk to me in the office," the victim said. "He asked me how bad did I want the job and he told me that he wanted to have sex with me."

It is hard to believe these kind of scenarios could be playing out so blatantly in the workplace today. But employees KPIX 5 talked to say it is part of an entrenched culture at the VA, perpetuated by a leadership that intimidates and punishes anyone who complains.

"We see it at Fox News. We see it at Uber. We see it in all kinds of places," said Jennifer Reisch, the legal director of Equal Rights Advocates, The organization is a non-profit that provides assistance to victims of harassment in the workplace.

"They are constantly looking back and recriminating themselves and blaming themselves for not doing enough early enough," Reisch said.

She explained that when your job is on the line, it's hard to fight back.

"To actually say, in a direct and straightforward way, 'Please stop speaking to me that way. It really makes me uncomfortable' or 'Don't touch me,' to say that in the workplace is laden with all kinds of fear," said Reisch.

Abalos said her supervisor threatened her with termination if she ever told anyone what he was doing.

"It was a lot of fear. I needed the stability. I am a single mom," she said.

After an internal investigation he was transferred to another VA clinic.

The Veterans Administration told KPIX 5 they can't comment about specific cases for privacy reasons. But in an earlier interview, VA director David Stockwell talked about the complaint process.

"We've made a very easy process, a very accessible process for someone to say, 'I don't think I was treated fairly. So people take advantage of that," said Stockwell.

When asked what recourse an employee would have if they didn't like the outcome, Stockwell said: "They could certainly vote with their feet as far as their employment decisions of working for the VA."

Abalos was outraged when she heard Stockwell's response.

"To have a director say if I don't like dealing with this man talking to me the way he did, or trying to grope me or kiss me or expose himself to me, then I can quit? That is just unheard of! I mean, who says that!" she exclaimed.

The VA sent KPIX 5 an additional new statement that reads:

"Allegations of sexual assault are very serious, and if founded are a criminal act. VA management is required to report founded criminal activity to the Office of Inspector General for investigation and victims are asked to file a police report with VA Police. Every allegation of sexual harassment presented to our management team is thoroughly assessed through various means of investigative tools, be it internal investigation or through The Office of Resolution Management until all the facts are gathered and appropriate action is taken.

There are, and will continue to be, legal and administrative consequences against employees who participate in criminal activity and/or conduct themselves in a way that is not conducive to an environment free of all forms of harassment. We have a responsibility to the Veterans we serve and our 3,500 plus employees to create an atmosphere that is safe, hold staff accountable for their actions, and that is a place of healing for our Veterans."

Regarding the charges against VA supervisor Darryl Milburn, KPIX 5 was told an internal investigation was conducted and action is being taken.


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