Vets groups demand Wilkie’s dismissal after scathing audit

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Richard Wilkie

FILE – In this July 7, 2020 file photo, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Richard Wilkie speaks at the National Press Club in Washington. Confronted with a sexual assault allegation at a veterans hospital, Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie repeatedly sought to discredit the female congressional staffer who made the complaint. His staff also worked to spread negative information about her while ignoring known problems of harassment at the facility. That’s according to a blistering investigation released Thursday by VA’s internal watchdog. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Four of the nation’s biggest veterans groups on Friday called for the immediate dismissal of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie following a scathing government audit that found he had acted unprofessionally if not unethically in the handling of a congressional aide’s allegation of sexual assault at a VA hospital.

Veterans of Foreign Wars joined Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Disabled American Veterans and AMVETS in saying Wilkie had breached the trust of veterans. In the final weeks of the Trump administration, they said they had lost all confidence that he can effectively lead the department, which is responsible for the care of nine million veterans.

“The accountability, professionalism and respect that our veterans have earned, and quite frankly deserve, is completely lost in this current VA leadership team,” said B.J. Lawrence, executive director of VFW, the nation’s oldest veterans group.

“Our veterans cannot wait until Jan. 20, 2021, for a leadership change,” he said. “Secretary Wilkie must resign now.”

An investigationby the Veterans Affairs’ inspector general on Thursday concluded that Wilkie repeatedly sought to discredit Andrea Goldstein, a senior policy adviser to Democratic Rep. Mark Takano, who is chair of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, after she alleged in September 2019 that a man at the VA medical center in Washington, D.C., had physically assaulted her.

The inspector general found that Wilkie’s disparaging comments about Goldstein, a Navy veteran, as a repeat complainer as well as the overall “tone” he set influenced his staff to spread negative information about her while ignoring known problems of harassment at the facility.

Wilkie and other senior officials had declined to fully cooperate with the investigation by VA Inspector General Michael Missal. For that reason, Missal said he could not conclude whether Wilkie had violated government policies or laws, allegedly by personally digging into the woman’s past. Wilkie denied wrongdoing.

“We’ve had our concerns about Wilkie’s leadership throughout the pandemic and this IG report really cements the fact that the VA is not being led with integrity,” said Jeremy Butler, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “That calls for an immediate change.”

The report on Thursday drew widespread concern from lawmakers from both parties about VA’s leadership, with Takano the first to call for Wilkie’s resignation. Concerned Veterans for America, a conservative group who supported Wilkie when he became VA secretary in 2018, chided Wilkie and his team, stressing that “VA leaders should always put the veteran and the integrity of the institution ahead of themselves.”

AMVETS national commander Jan Brown said she found it unacceptable that VA would dismiss known problems facing women who receive care at its facilities.

“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,” she said. “We strongly disapprove of any VA official that took part in the scheme to wreck the credibility of a victim.”

The case of Goldstein, who agreed to be publicly identified, was ultimately closed by the inspector general’s office and Justice Department earlier this year due to a lack of enough evidence to bring charges.

Wilkie is President Donald Trump’s second VA secretary after David Shulkin was fired in 2018. A former Pentagon undersecretary, he presided over the nation’s largest hospital system that has seen continuing improvement and veterans’ satisfaction since a 2014 scandal involving lengthy waiting times for medical appointments.

Wilkie, however, has taken flak from conservatives for restricting veterans’ access to private care for many months during the pandemic, a move they said rendered Trump’s core agenda of enhancing VA “Choice” ineffective. Wilkie also drew fire from IAVA and other groups for embracing the president’s unsubstantiated claims that hydroxychloroquine was safe for veterans to freely take for the treatment and prevention of COVID-19.

“VA can and must do better,” said Randy Reese, executive director of Disabled American Veterans’ Washington headquarters.

President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to rebuild trust in the VA when he takes office on Jan. 20. He has selected Denis McDonough, who served as President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff, to be VA secretary.

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