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8 vet groups demand VA Sec. Wilkie resign after IG report says he undermined sexual assault investigation

Then-Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie speaks at a press briefing at the White House on May 17, 2018, in Washington, D.C. (Olivier Douliery/Abaca Press/TNS)
December 14, 2020

Eight U.S. veteran groups have demanded Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie resign or be removed following a report released Thursday by the VA’s Office of Inspector General found evidence comments made by Wilkie may have impacted the outcome of an investigation into a 2019 sexual harassment incident.

The veterans’ groups calling for Wilkie’s dismissal include The American Legion, Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), Paralyzed Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), AMVETS, Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) and the Modern Military Association of America (MMAA).

In September 2019, a woman veteran reported she was sexually assaulted while waiting for an appointment at the Washington DC VA Medical Center. A criminal investigation was opened but closed in January 2020 with no charges filed. After the criminal investigation concluded, Wilkie referred to the sexual assault allegations as “unsubstantiated,” something he later said was a “poor choice of words, and he withdraws that word.”

In February, Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), the Chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, requested the OIG investigate media reports that VA officials “used government time and resources” to undermine the investigation into the woman veteran’s sexual assault allegations.

The OIG report was unable to corroborate allegations Wilkie investigated or ordered an investigation into the veteran who raised the sexual assault allegations. However, the OIG found Wilkie did question the veteran’s allegations in the presence of other VA officials and said the veteran had made similar claims in the past and  “the inference was that the complaints were unfounded.” The OIG report further stated, “Wilkie’s statements questioning the veteran’s credibility and motivation were not without effect” and the report found that other VA officials subsequently questioned the veteran’s motives in comments to news reporters.

The OIG report concluded, “The evidence is replete with examples of VA senior leaders undertaking defensive actions and engaging in confrontational messaging while failing to recognize the need to take corrective action to address known problems. Secretary Wilkie and other VA officials privately disparaged the veteran, with the Secretary referring to her as ‘the Takano staffer whose glamor shot was in the New York Times.’ The tone set by Secretary Wilkie was at minimum unprofessional and at worst provided the basis for senior officials to put out information to national reporters to question the credibility and background of the veteran who filed the sexual assault complaint.”

“The unconscionable details laid out in this report are just another sign of the pervasive culture that allows for sexual assault and harassment, as well as retaliation against those who raise these issues, to continue within the VA. They must be addressed in order to effect systemic change. We call on the President of the United States to fire Secretary Robert Wilkie, if he doesn’t resign. Additionally, the senior leaders who enabled this to happen and allowed this culture to fester should be held accountable,” Paralyzed Veterans of America Executive Director, Carl Blake said Friday.

IAVA CEO Jeremy Butler called for Wilkie’s immediate resignation and said, “In a time when we are fighting to make VA a safe and welcoming place for all veterans, it is inexcusable for the secretary of VA to focus on victim-blaming and reputation attacks rather than having concern for what the veteran experienced. Secretary Wilkie’s position makes him responsible for the safety of veterans within VA medical centers; however, the OIG report shows his blatant disregard and disrespect for what this veteran experienced in contrast with his overarching concern for his own reputation.”

AMVETS national commander Jan Brown said, “Upon a full review of the VAOIG report, I am calling on the VA Secretary to resign immediately.” In her statement, Brown also said, “Women veterans already hesitate to use VA services for a number of reasons and we need a Secretary who will make our community feel welcomed. We strongly disapprove of any VA official that took part in the scheme to wreck the credibility of a victim.”

VFW executive director B.J. Lawrence said, “Sexual assault is a criminal act. We expected the Secretary to properly investigate this serious matter, yet he and close members of his team focused on questioning the credibility of the alleged assaulted veteran. The VFW can no longer entrust Secretary Wilkie with leading our VA or caring for our veterans. Trust is lost and our veterans cannot wait until January 20, 2021, for a leadership change. Secretary Wilkie must resign now.”

American Legion National Commander James W. “Bill” Oxford said, “VA’s own website includes a pledge to ‘Stand Up to Stop Harassment Now!’ . . . By the promises set forth by his own department, The American Legion believes Secretary Wilkie should resign. Wilkie’s top lieutenants Pam Powers, James Hutton and Curt Cashour should also step down because of their roles in this violation of trust.”

Randy Reese, Executive Director of DAV’s Washington Headquarters, said, “DAV does not take this action lightly; but it is clear, based on the troubling findings and conclusions of the recent VA OIG report, that Secretary Wilkie’s personal actions in response to a reported incident of sexual assault at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center, breached the trust of those whom he is beholden to honor and serve.”

VVA National President John Rowand called on Wilkie to “step down immediately” and said, “Mr. Wilkie has demonstrated that he has lost sight of his responsibility to those who are entrusted to his care. He has breached the trust of the veterans community, and he has proven himself unfit to lead.”

MMAA Interim Executive Director Jennifer Dane, who is an Air Force veteran and military sexual assault survivor, said, “The details laid out in this report are egregious, unconscionable, and demand an immediate response. If Secretary Wilkie and his collaborators fail to resign, the President of the United States should fire them.”

Dane added, “Congress should also investigate Representative Dan Crenshaw’s role in this horrendous act.”

The OIG report had included a copy of an email Wilkie sent in which he alluded to a conversation he had with Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX) about the woman veteran. In the email, Wilkie wrote, “Ask me in the morning what Congressman Crenshaw said about the Takano staffer whose glamor shot was in the New York Times.” Wilkie said Crenshaw had only told him that he had served in the same unit as the veteran making the sexual assault accusations, while other VA officials who were interviewed during the OIG investigation said they believed Crenshaw may have communicated to Wilkie that the veteran had made similar accusations while in the Navy.

Crenshaw declined to sit for a voluntary interview with OIG investigators.