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Veterans Affairs watchdog reviewing request to investigate secretary for allegedly seeking dirt on aide who reported a sexual assault

Posted February 9, 2020 9:07 p.m. EST

— The Department of Veterans Affairs' watchdog is reviewing a request to investigate allegations that Secretary Robert Wilkie sought "damaging information" about a congressional staffer who alleged she was sexually assaulted at a government-run veterans hospital, a congressional aide confirmed to CNN on Sunday.

The request made Friday by House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, a California Democrat, came after the panel said in a statement that it "received details from an individual with knowledge of decision making by senior VA leaders that shows they attempted to gather 'damaging information" about Andrea Goldstein, one of the congressman's top aides. CNN has confirmed that "senior VA leaders" refers to Wilkie, according to a source with knowledge.

Last fall, Goldstein, a Navy veteran who currently serves as a Navy Reserve intelligence officer, said she was sexually harassed and assaulted at the VA Medical Center in Washington.

CNN does not usually name victims of sexual assault but Goldstein has spoken publicly, including in an op-ed, on the situation.

The allegations were "thoroughly" investigated by Michael Missal, the department's inspector general, but no charges were brought at the conclusion of the probe last month, according to his office.

The House committee's request to Missal was first reported on Saturday by The Washington Post.

Citing conversations with three people with knowledge of the efforts, the newspaper said that around the time of Goldstein's complaint, Wilkie, who previously worked at the Pentagon, "quietly began inquiring with military officials" about the aide's past.

The Post reported that Wilkie, who shared information he gathered about Goldstein with top staff members during half a dozen meetings, said his efforts found that the aide "had filed multiple complaints while in the service," according to three people with knowledge of what the secretary said. The newspaper said the secretary was worried about Goldstein's "credibility and military record" and that he described the aide to department staffers as a "serial sexual assault/harassment complainant in the Navy who made baseless allegations, for example, when she was not satisfied with a fitness evaluation."

Additionally, "Wilkie suggested to several people on his staff, including his public affairs chief, that they use the information he collected to discredit Goldstein," but the officials declined to do so, the Post said.

CNN has reached out to Goldstein through the House committee for comment on the matter. The aide "disputed" to the Post that she had made multiple complaints, and she told the paper she made just one formal complaint to the Navy before the alleged incident at the Washington VA hospital.

Wilkie denied seeking dirt on Goldstein in a statement to CNN on Friday.

"Secretary Wilkie did not and never would do anything of this sort," said Christina Mandreucci, a spokesperson for the department.

She added that the VA "takes all allegations of sexual assault seriously, which is why the department immediately reported Ms. Goldstein's allegations to VA's independent inspector general as well as the deputy attorney general."

After Missal, the inspector general, concluded the probe into Goldstein's 2019 sexual assault complaint, Wilkie released a letter to Takano in which he referred to "unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff (that) could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve." The letter was met with backlash from both the chairman and Missal, who argued that a lack of charges in the case doesn't mean Goldstein's allegations are untrue. She wrote in the op-ed, "I learned that the case had been closed because there was insufficient evidence to prove a criminal case beyond a reasonable doubt."

Wilkie's letter "inaccurately characterizes the complainant's allegation as 'unsubstantiated,'" Missal wrote to the secretary last month. "That is not an accurate description of the results of our investigation."

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

In a statement last month, Takano also criticized Wilkie's letter, writing: "To cast doubt on credible, serious, and concerning claims about how women are treated at VA is outrageous."

Sexual assaults across the US military increased by a rate of nearly 38% in 2018, according to a Pentagon report. The report which surveyed both men and women from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines estimated that 20,500 members of those services experienced "unwanted sexual contact" in 2018, a significant increase from 14,900 when the military last conducted a similar survey in 2016.

"(The) Secretary's flippant letter is only further evidence to my staffer and others that coming forward is punished, speaking out retaliated against, and that a hostile culture at VA is tolerated."

Goldstein publicly weighed in on the matter last week in a first-hand account on the website Jezebel, writing that Wilkie, who also served in the Navy Reserves, "was implying that a fellow Navy veteran was a liar" in his public letter about her.

"He used coded language, but the words still stung. The Secretary of the second largest federal agency knew how his words would resonate," she wrote. "He was implying that I was a liar."

James Hutton, the VA's assistant secretary for public affairs, told the Post, that Wilkie regretted the language he used in the letter.

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