The Inspector General for the Department of Veterans Affairs is currently investigating claims that Robert Wilkie tried to discredit Andrea Goldstein, a Navy veteran and congressional staffer, who reported she was sexually assaulted at a VA facility.
The VA Secretary allegedly sought “damaging information” about Goldstein after she reported the incident, which she claims took place at a VA hospital in Washington DC. The Inspector General is treating the investigation as "high priority."
In early February 2020, the alleged victim published a first-person account of the events on the feminist website Jezebel, stating:
“In September, I was sexually harassed and assaulted at the Washington D.C. VA hospital.
“I reported the incident to three VA employees who did nothing. The fourth individual I notified, my doctor, finally called the VA police. VA’s Office of the Inspector General and the US Attorney’s Office opened an investigation.
“Two weeks ago, I learned that the case had been closed because there was insufficient evidence. . . The next day the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Robert Wilkie, wrote a letter to my boss, Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Congressman Mark Takano, in which he wrote, ‘We believe that VA is a safe place for all Veterans to enter and receive care and services, but the unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff could deter our Veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.’”
It was, in fact, the victim’s boss, Rep. Mark Takano, who formally requested an investigation into claims that Wilkie’s search for damaging information about Goldstein.
The VA has an appalling track record of dealing with sexual misconduct claims. And not every victim has direct access to a Congressman, as Goldstein did. Without Takano’s help, Ms. Goldstein’s allegations might have remained in the dark.
According to Goldstein, “Secretary Wilkie’s continued refusal to take ownership of the hostility and sexual violence at VA further perpetuated this hostile culture by both revictimizing a veteran in public and denying the culture of harassment and assault whose existence is well documented.”
A spokesperson for the VA told CNN that the department would cooperate with the investigation into Wilkie’s behavior just like it had done with the investigation into Goldstein’s sexual assault claims.
The VA spokesperson also clarified that the investigation into Goldstein’s sexual assault claims had been "closed with no charges filed, and neither the independent inspector general nor the U.S. attorney [had] recommended any corrective or personnel actions, or general suggestions for improvement to VA," and stated that Secretary Wilkie would never try to discredit a sexual assault victim.
Despite claims that the VA takes sexual assault allegations very seriously, Goldstein believes Wilkie has repeatedly refused to “acknowledge that VA is not a safe place for women,” willfully ignoring “plenty of VA’s own research on the topic.”
Andrea Goldstein is currently serving as a Navy Reserve intelligence officer. After Wilkie sent his letter to Rep. Takano, referring to the veteran’s “unsubstantiated claims,” the Inspector General stated that the document "inaccurately characterizes the complainant's allegation as 'unsubstantiated,'" clarifying that Wilkie’s characterization is "not an accurate description of the results of [the Inspector General’s] investigation."
"Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean that the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated," the Inspector General concluded.
In the last paragraphs of her editorial for Jezebel, Goldstein described experiences that are unfortunately not uncommon for veterans who have been victims of sexual assault. “For many veterans, experiencing this form of traumatic invalidation from a powerful figure would have triggered a mental health crisis. Although I’m frustrated and exhausted, I will be fine. However, I could not help but think about past waypoints in my own journey with PTSD and depression, where something like this incident might have made me consider hurting myself. VA’s world-class researchers at the National Center for PTSD have found that triggers such as this would cause an attempted or completed suicide for many veterans,” she concluded.
Sexual assault is often hard to prove. If the response from the authorities does not make them feel like the VA cares, fewer and fewer victims will report in the future.
The details of how Wilkie allegedly sought information to discredit Goldstein have not been leaked to the press. Hopefully, the Inspector General will take this case seriously, and those responsible will be held accountable.