Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough took the blame Wednesday for VA's slow response to harassment allegations within its Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion.

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough took the blame Wednesday for VA's slow response to harassment allegations within its Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion. Drew Angerer / Getty Images

VA secretary says he ‘failed’ in recognizing office harassment allegations

Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough candidly admitted fault during a House committee hearing for not discerning more quickly whistleblower complaints of sexual harassment within a department office.

Denis McDonough acknowledged his and the Veterans Affairs Department’s failure Wednesday in not more quickly moving to address sexual harassment claims made by an employee in the office designated to investigate such claims.

“There’s no question that I have failed in this instance,” the VA secretary told the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs in a full oversight hearing examining the handling of an investigation into harassment claims made within the department’s Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion.

During the hearing, McDonough repeatedly asserted that he neither remembered seeing an October email from an employee making harassment claims within ORMDI nor Committee Chairman Mike Bost’s, R-Ill., September email detailing those allegations. 

However, McDonough did acknowledge that the official timeline showed that he notified the VA’s acting general counsel of the employee email and was assured that it was being addressed. 

He also acknowledged Bost’s Sept. 29 email detailing two whistleblower claims of sexual harassment and misconduct by senior leadership within ORMDI was weeks later provided to him in a briefing book prepared by his staff, but he did not recall seeing it. 

The allegations have created a firestorm that includes both the VA’s and House Committee’s own investigations, subpoenas of VA documents and the committee naming of three senior ORDMI leaders facing the allegations. 

Almost overshadowing McDonough’s testimony Wednesday was a crossfire of partisan barbs lobbied from both sides of the aisle, criticizing everything from VA’s handling of the allegations to Bost’s own handling of the committee investigation.

Bost said during opening remarks that McDonough’s explanation that he sent the employee email to VA’s acting general counsel and to Equal Employment Opportunity contacts at the U.S. Postal Service to investigate, but failed to remember its contents “strains reasonableness.”

Ranking Member Mark Takano, D-Calif., meanwhile said that Bost and the committee’s GOP members “continue to intentionally mislead the on the allegations and findings of this investigation.” 

He noted that the VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection substantiated some of the misconduct claims in a report, but not that ORDMI purposely ignored harassment claims; that supervisors retaliated against employees; or that senior leaders engaged in waste, mismanagement or perjury

“Finally, the report does not support the existence of, to use the majority’s phrase, ‘a systemic, sexual cesspool at ORDMI,’” Takano said. “The conspiracy the majority has pushed is not reflective of reality.”

Bost responded by quoting OAWP’s report that “’the mountain of evidence and testimony revealed that an office replete with misconduct, including misconduct by organized leaders, which spawned an environment in which inappropriate conduct was rampant.’”

Amid the committee’s back-and-forth, McDonough said the first time he can remember being made aware of the allegations in detail was in a Nov. 13 call with Bost, who expressed dismay he had received no VA response to the Sept. 29 letter. 

That letter was initially directed to VA’s Human Resources and Administration/Operations, Security and Preparedness office, which began compiling information to respond to Bost’s eight questions, but did not move beyond gathering that information to investigate the allegations.  

HR&A did not convene an administrative investigation board or detail the accused employees to other assignments until Nov. 13, in part because former VA assistant secretary for human resources Gina Grosso had difficulty finding an official to lead the investigation.

“I’m disappointed that HR&A did not move with more alacrity in detailing out the alleged bad actors and launching an investigation of the alleged misconduct at ORMDI,” McDonough said. “I also regret not having seen your Sept. 29 letter. However, it must be said that I took to hear the concerns you expressed in our Nov. 13 call, and we have moved with dispatch to address these concerns and respond to the committee investigation since that call.”