Eugene Russell/VA file photo

VA Secretary Under Investigation After Complaint He Looked for Dirt on a House Staffer Who Said She’d Been Assaulted

The agency’s internal watchdog told lawmakers about the probe after ProPublica unearthed the allegations against Secretary Robert Wilkie.

The inspector general for the Department of Veterans Affairs is investigating allegations that Secretary Robert Wilkie sought damaging information to discredit a congressional staffer who said she was sexually assaulted in a VA hospital.

The allegations, first reported by ProPublica, were raised in an anonymous complaint to the committee that the staffer works for. A former senior official and another person familiar with the matter, who both spoke to ProPublica on the condition of anonymity, described meetings between Wilkie and his senior staff in which he discussed information he had collected about the staffer’s past and suggested using it to discredit her.

“This matter is a high priority for our office,” the inspector general, Michael Missal, said in letters to House Veterans’ Affairs Committee chairman Mark Takano of California and six Senate Democrats on Thursday. “We will report the results of our review when it is completed.”

VA press secretary Christina Mandreucci said the agency would cooperate with the investigation. “VA remains focused on maintaining a welcoming environment to all who have worn the uniform, including the 41 percent of all women veterans who are enrolled in VA care,” she said in a statement.

The White House did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the investigation.

Wilkie has denied inquiring into the staffer’s past. Both of them served in the Navy. “I never would do that to a fellow officer,” Wilkie said in a statement. “It is a breach of honor.”

The staffer, Andrea Goldstein, works for the Women Veterans Task Force on Takano’s committee. She has said publicly that she was groped at the VA medical center in Washington in September. The inspector general investigated her complaint, working with federal prosecutors.

At the same time, Wilkie conducted a shadow inquiry into her past, according to the people familiar with the matter. The people said Wilkie shared his findings with his senior staff, including public affairs officials, and wondered aloud how they might be used to undermine Goldstein’s account.

“I am gravely concerned that Secretary Wilkie and VA officials may have unlawfully accessed or attempted to access Ms. Goldstein’s military service records, medical records, or took other actions to obtain sensitive or personal information about Ms. Goldstein with intent to discredit her character and retaliate against her,” Takano said in a Feb. 7 letter to Missal, citing ProPublica’s reporting and requesting an investigation.

The American Legion, one of the largest veterans groups, with more than 1 million members, also called for an official probe. “The allegations that have been reported over the past week at the Department of Veterans Affairs are extremely concerning and bring into question the ethical suitability of the leadership at VA’s highest levels,” the group said in a statement. “We expect that any persons found to have acted outside of their authority and the scope of their duties will be held accountable and dealt with in an appropriate manner.”

In their letter to the VA inspector general on Monday, the six senators — Patty Murray of Washington, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Tammy Duckworth of Illinois — said Wilkie’s alleged actions, if true, would be “outrageous and inexcusable” and “absolutely unacceptable.”

They also criticized Wilkie’s handling of Goldstein’s original assault complaint. In January, after prosecutors declined to bring charges, Wilkie called Goldstein’s allegation “unsubstantiated.” Missal replied with a letter saying that Wilkie’s characterization was incorrect.

“While that clarification was helpful and appreciated, it cannot reverse the damage done by Secretary Wilkie,” the senators wrote. “This type of toxic leadership undermines the hardworking, dedicated professional staff at VA, and makes it less likely that women veterans — the largest growing demographic of veterans — will seek the care and benefits from the VA that they have earned through their service.”

This article was originally published in ProPublica. It has been republished under the Creative Commons license.  ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.