House subpoenas VA over sexual harassment allegations
The department has asked for time to conduct its own investigation, but in a bipartisan vote, lawmakers declined to wait.
A House panel on Thursday voted overwhelmingly to subpoena the Veterans Affairs Department for documents related to allegations of sexual harassment at the top ranks of its harassment prevention office, saying the scope and speed of the agency’s internal probe were inadequate.
The 22-1 bipartisan vote followed up on allegations the committee made public in November regarding officials in VA’s Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion. The subpoena would enable the House Veterans Affairs Committee to demand documents related to its investigation.
Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill., who chairs the panel, called the step “extraordinary and rare,” noting it had last used the authority in 2016. He added, however, that the “horrific nature” of the allegations necessitated the action and rejected VA’s request to allow it to finish an internal investigation before lawmakers proceeded. The department pledged to release the results of its probe and answer all of Bost’s inquiries, but the chairman called that insufficient.
“Now that the accused have retired, resigned, or been shuffled around the VA bureaucracy, the department would like this committee to forget about its oversight responsibilities and cede them to the executive branch,” Bost said. “I will not do that.”
The committee named three ORMDI officials as facing allegations of sexual harassment: Harvey Johnson, who until recently led the office; Archie Davis, the former ORMDI chief of staff; and Gary Richardson, a former ORMDI supervisor. VA reassigned all three officials after the committee made the allegations public in November and Johnson has since retired. Gina Grosso served as the VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and oversaw ORMDI, but resigned in November.
Bost said his subpoena would help bring to light details not just about the immediate situation, but also to determine how systemic the issues within the department. He vowed to uncover who was made aware of the allegations and what steps they took to address them.
“The committee’s oversight is necessary to not only make sure this vile behavior stops,” Bost said, “but also to determine whether VA has the authority it needs to appropriately discipline these offenders and actually have a ‘zero-tolerance’ policy for sexual harassment.”
The allegations varied among the individuals, but included improper sexual relationships with subordinate female employees, pressuring female subordinates for romantic relationships and unequal treatment to those who denied the alleged advances.
The committee on Thursday displayed some text messages allegedly showing Davis pressuring a subordinate into a relationship, but Bost said others were “too graphic and frankly disgusting” to display in public. Lawmakers in both parties who reviewed those messages suggested they were disturbing.
After receiving complaints from two whistleblowers, Bost sent private letters to VA Secretary Denis McDonough in September and November of last year to request documents and information regarding ORMDI, but said he did not receive what he asked for and therefore made the allegations public.
The committee has since sent several letters requesting more information and transcribed interviews with the relevant parties, leading VA to provide some documentation but declining the interviews. Terrence Hayes, a VA spokesman, noted the department has provided the committee nearly 1,200 pages of documents, transcribed interviews from its internal investigation, performance plans, salary information, briefings and other information the committee requested. It plans to send over its final report, more transcribed interviews and hundreds of thousands of documents by the end of January.
“VA does not tolerate sexual harassment,” Hayes said. “We are treating these allegations with the utmost seriousness, have moved to aggressively investigate them, and will take swift and appropriate action.”
He added the department appreciates the congressional oversight and will “continue to fully cooperate with their activities in this matter.”
Lawmakers ahead of the subpoena vote Thursday said Congress must do its duty to “hold unelected bureaucrats accountable” and said their scrutiny could uncover information that VA will not.
“The cultural rot appears to go all the way to political appointees overseeing the entire department,” said Rep. Juan Ciscomani, R-Ariz. “Simply put, our federal workers and our veterans deserve better.”
Rep. Greg Murphy, R-N.C., said anyone who would vote against the subpoena was doing so for political reasons.
“If anybody, in my opinion, votes against this, they are literally trying to protect the Biden administration against those victims who have been attacked,” Murphy said.
Several Democrats voiced reservations about the subpoena, noting the alleged harassers deserve due process and naming them could expose the identities of the whistleblowers. Rep. Greg Landsman, D-Ohio, said while the allegations were serious, the time and labor that would go into the investigation could distract from issues such as veteran homelessness and suicide.
Landsman ultimately voted to approve the subpoena and only Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the committee, voted against it. Takano called the allegations “disturbing,” but cautioned the panel was at risk of taking steps to “poison the process” by rushing to judgment, exposing whistleblowers and unnecessarily duplicating VA’s investigation.
Rep. Keith Self, R-Texas, reiterated the committee was better positioned to take a larger scope in its approach.
“These things are normally open secrets in organizations, far beyond what we have identified here,” Self said. “I hope that this committee uses our subpoena to go to the culture of the entire organization.”