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Vet secretary aimed to discredit VA hospital sex assault case, House committee says

A VA House committee spokesperson said that senior leaders at VA, including VA Secretary Wilkie, aimed to discredit a House staffer who said that she was sexually assaulted at a VA facility last year.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Nominee Robert Wilkie Confirmation Hearing Before The Senate Committee
Robert Wilkie speaks during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill on June 27, 2018.Al Drago / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie attempted to discredit a Democratic House staffer of the Veterans Committee who reported being sexually assaulted at a VA hospital in Washington, D.C., last year, the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs said Friday.

“The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs has received details from an individual with knowledge of decision making by senior VA leaders that shows they attempted to gather 'damaging information' about a member of our staff and may have improperly utilized government time and resources to do so," VA Committee spokesperson Jenni Geurink said in a statement.

Geurink told NBC News that the anonymous complaint alleged senior leaders at VA, including Wilkie, aimed to discredit House staffer Andrea Goldstein, a reserve Navy intelligence officer who said that she was sexually assaulted at the VA Medical Center in Washington last year and whose case was then investigated by the VA's Office of Inspector General.

ProPublica was first to report Wilkie's alleged involvement in the effort to undermine Goldstein's claims.

“The story you reference [is] so full of falsehoods, it would be irresponsible for you to repeat it to your readers," VA Press Secretary Christina Mandreucci said in an email to NBC News. "Secretary Wilkie did not and never would do anything of this sort. The only investigation into this matter was that of the IG and U.S. Attorney."

Wilkie — a former Navy reservist — told ProPublica in a statement that "I never would do that to a fellow officer. It is a breach of honor."

The anonymous complaint, which NBC News has not examined and the committee declined to provide, allegedly states that Wilkie began to gather information about Goldstein's credibility and military record during the inspector general investigation and hoped to find something that could be publicized to undermine Goldstein's allegations, Geurink said.

She added that the complaint also implicates Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, a former Navy SEAL, who allegedly met with Wilkie, discussed Goldstein's claims with the secretary and agreed with Wilkie's characterization of the House staffer.

Wilkie denied discussing Goldstein with Crenshaw, according to ProPublica.

“The notion that the anyone at the VA reached out to Congressman Crenshaw to dig up dirt on this staffer has no basis in reality," Justin Discigil, Crenshaw's communications director, said. "It never happened and Mr. Crenshaw has never been contacted by anyone at the VA about this case."

Goldstein serves as a senior policy adviser for the House Veterans' Affairs Committee's Women Veterans Task Force. She told The New York Times in September that she was buying a smoothie in the VA hospital's cafeteria when a man pressed his entire body against her and said, "You look like you could use a good time."

Goldstein did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story and had previously directed inquiries to the House Veterans Affairs committee.

Now that the anonymous complaint has come to light, the House committee is considering "all investigative options to determine to what extent VA leaders attempted to tarnish a staff member’s character and spread false information about her past in retaliation for her reporting of a sexual assault at the DC VA Medical Center," Guerink said.

Wilkie did not release whatever alleged information he gathered, but claimed in a Jan. 15 letter to Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, that Goldstein's complaint was considered "unsubstantiated." He added in the letter that Takano and his staff's decision to elevate it "could deter our Veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve."

Michael Missal, the VA inspector general, sent a letter to Wilkie later that same day disputing the characterization that Goldstein's claims were "unsubstantiated."

Missal wrote in the letter that he had told Deputy Secretary Jim Byrne and Chief of Staff Pam Powers the day prior that "the investigation had been closed without charges and that no other characterization could or should be made regarding the outcome of the investigation."

"Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean that the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated," he told Wilkie.

Mandreucci, the VA press secretary, told NBC News on Friday that the inspector general's office should let the VA and the leaders of the committee know whether it had "found any wrongdoing so the department can take action to protect and safeguard our patients," citing the office's website that says the inspector general is to report substantiated claims that are not prosecuted "to VA management officials responsible for taking action to address the findings."

These allegations and the debate surrounding them came to further light in an essay Goldstein wrote for the website Jezebel that rejected Wilkie's characterizations and claims.

Goldstein wrote that the secretary "used coded language" to imply she "was a liar" and in turn refused to take the issue of female safety at VA facilities seriously, citing a VA study from 2019 that concluded one in four women veteran primary care patients experienced harassment when they visited VA health care facilities.

"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," Goldstein wrote.