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Inspector General Criticizes V.A.’s Handling of Sexual Assault Complaint


WASHINGTON — An inspector general inquiry has criticized Robert L. Wilkie, the secretary of veterans affairs, for a response that was “at a minimum unprofessional” after a female Navy veteran reported a sexual assault at a department hospital in Washington.

But the inquiry, according to a copy of the report made available on Thursday, did not determine that Mr. Wilkie had attempted to discredit the woman who filed the complaint, or otherwise undermine her allegation by challenging her character or professionalism.

Michael J. Missal, the inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs, did express concern more broadly over what he said was an “immediate and persistent questioning of a veteran’s credibility” by some officials.

“It was disappointing that V.A. did not put their full force and focus on determining whether corrective action should be taken to provide a safer and more welcoming environment in their D.C. and other medical facilities,” Mr. Missal said.

While inconclusive, the report is another stain on a department that at one point stood at the center of President Trump’s political agenda. The agency, historically troubled, has fallen under scrutiny over the last few years for various missteps.

The inquiry began after Andrea Goldstein, a Navy veteran who is the senior policy adviser for the Women Veterans Task Force on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said she was assaulted at a V.A. medical center in 2019.

She said a man slammed his body against hers below the waist and told her, “You look like you could use a good time

Ms. Goldstein’s initial complaint was investigated by law enforcement officials and the inspector general’s office at Mr. Wilkie’s direction.

But, in a January letter in which Mr. Wilke said officials had declined to bring any charges, he called Ms. Goldstein’s complaint “unsubstantiated,” prompting a rebuke from Mr. Missal.

“Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the department that the allegations were unsubstantiated,” Mr. Missal wrote in response.

In a statement released by her lawyer, Ms. Goldstein said the report “confirmed” that Mr. Wilkie had sought to “impugn” her character rather than investigate her assault. She also lamented the damage the episode had done to female veterans seeking medical care.

“Many women veterans have approached me to tell me that this incident has permanently severed trust with the agency and that they will never seek health care from V.A.,” she said. “I am hopeful that the next secretary will center and prioritize eradicating sexual violence at V.A. and actively work to gain women veterans’ trust.”

In sworn testimony, Mr. Wilkie denied investigating Ms. Goldstein or questioning her credibility during the inquiry.

But the mysterious firing in February of the deputy secretary of veterans affairs appears in the report to stem from what the official, James Byrne, believed was a pressure campaign to discredit Ms. Goldstein, which caused him concern. At the time, Mr. Wilkie said the deputy was removed because of a “loss of confidence in Mr. Byrne’s ability to carry out his duties.”

The investigation cited evidence that senior agency officers pressured the department’s police to focus the investigation on Ms. Goldstein, including running a background check on her two days before running one on the man Ms. Goldstein said assaulted her, and who was identified in the report only as a contractor.

The report also criticized the department’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, Curt Cashour, for suggesting to a journalist, “You may want to look into — see — if she’s done this sort of thing in the past.”

The report comes amid a spate of problems for the department. Last year, the inspector general reported that a new office formed to protect whistle-blowers often retaliated against them instead. And a crucial $16 billion overhaul of the veterans medical records system was delayed amid technical and training problems.

Other internal problems plagued the department as it struggled, along with the rest of the nation’s health care system, to manage the coronavirus pandemic. The new report itself was delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The new inspector general report underscores a major problem as veterans hospitals across the country try to attract female veterans — the largest growing segment of the veteran population — amid reports of harassment and worse at the agency’s health centers.

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