Ex-VA diversity chief told to remove condemnation of white supremacists from Charlottesville response, emails show
Posted December 6, 2018 12:45 p.m. EST
(CNN) — In the wake of the deadly August 2017 rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the former chief diversity officer of the Department of Veteran Affairs was discouraged from posting a more forceful condemnation of the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who participated, according to internal emails obtained by a watchdog group.
Former VA official Georgia Coffey reached out to the department's public affairs office for approval to issuing a statement in response to the "Unite the Right" rally that left one woman dead and over a dozen injured.
The Washington Post first reported on the emails, which were made public via a Freedom of Information Act request filed by American Oversight, a government watchdog group.
President Donald Trump drew criticism from Democrats and Republicans for blaming "many sides" for the violence that broke out between white supremacists and neo-Nazis, who were protesting the removal of a Confederate statue, and counterprotesters.
Then-Secretary of Veteran's Affairs David Shulkin told reporters that week that he was "outraged" by the violence in Charlottesville and argued that while he does not speak for the President, "we all have to speak up about this as Americans," according to the Post.
According to the newly released emails, that same week, Coffey sought permission to release a statement that included: "The repugnant display of hate and bigotry by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan do not represent America, but serve as a tragic reminder that our work in civil rights and inclusion is not finished." She also said she encouraged Shulkin to issue a similar message, according to the emails.
A VA press staffer emailed Coffey, telling her that John Ullyot, the assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, did not want to post the message given Shulkin's earlier remarks on the topic.
"This is very unfortunate," Coffey replied, arguing that the message is "consistent" with her responsibility as the agency's chief diversity officer. She pushed for her proposed statement to be issued, according to the emails.
Ullyot wrote back, saying he had consulted with Shulkin who said "we should all feel free to share our own personal views on the recent events on social media and other outlets, as he did (to a national audience) on Wednesday where he emphasized that he was giving his own personal views, rather than an official view of the Department."
He suggested a shorter version of Coffey's statement -- removing the mentions of white supremacists, KKK and neo-Nazis -- but keeping in the part that would "remind employees of our strong commitment" to equal opportunity employment and diversity, the emails show.
Ullyot ended his email, "It's always a good idea to emphasize our commitment in this area."
Coffey took issue with Ullyot's edits, saying that she feared the revised statement "dilutes my message and fails to convey the sense of condemnation that I hope we all feel."
"It is very important that I reference the hate groups specifically so there is no confusion or equivocation in my message," she argued in an email.
She offered to remove a reference to Shulkin from her statement, but Ullyot told her that his edited statement, which had the approval of Shulkin, is the one she could use.
"SecVA specifically approved that statement in my previous mail for the reasons indicated so that is the one we will go with," Ullyot wrote.
CNN's attempts to reach Coffey were not immediately successful.
The current Secretary of Veteran's Affairs Robert Wilkie defended Ullyot in a statement, confirming he is "on the VA team because he is committed to Veterans and has spent a lifetime of exceptional service as a Marine and public servant."
"Then-Secretary Shulkin dictated explicitly to John Ullyot how he wanted this particular issue handled," Curt Cashour, press secretary for the department, said in a statement provided to CNN Thursday, pointing to Ullyot's email.
"As the email states, Shulkin was adamant that VA employees keep their personal views on the Charlottesville issue out of official VA communications, as Shulkin had done himself in public comments two days beforehand. Ullyot was simply ensuring that Coffey understood and followed Shulkin's guidance," Cashour said.
Shulkin told the Post that he did not recall his conversations with Ullyot regarding a VA response to Charlottesville.
"For former Sec. Shulkin to say that he doesn't recall that he directed Ullyot to share his directive is belied by the paper trail contradicting his statement," Cashour told CNN. "This is more sour grapes from a dismissed doctor."
According to the Post, Coffey, who held the role since 2008, left the agency shortly after her exchange with Ullyot, frustrated with what she felt was a lack of support from the Trump administration. Cashour told CNN Coffey left voluntarily.