National veteran organizations call on Trump to immediately remove VA Secretary after scathing report

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie talks to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House November 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. Wilkie listed a number of programs that he said were successful examples of the Trump Administration's dedication to veterans and their care.
U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie talks to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House November 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. Wilkie listed a number of programs that he said were successful examples of the Trump Administration's dedication to veterans and their care. Photo credit Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
By Connecting Vets

Six major national veteran service organizations are calling on President Donald Trump to remove his Secretary of Veterans Affairs following a damning watchdog report that found he and his senior staff sought to discredit a veteran who reported being sexually assaulted at a VA hospital.

On Dec. 11 and in following days veteran organizations representing millions of vets across the country, Capitol Hill lawmakers and women veterans united in calling for Robert Wilkie and his senior staff to resign or be removed. As of Dec. 16, about 20 lawmakers and at least 16 veteran groups had publicly called for the removals.

In a letter to the president on Dec. 16, Disabled American Veterans (DAV), AMVETS, Paralyzed Veterans of America (PVA), Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), the American Legion and Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA) asked Trump to hold VA senior leaders accountable "for failing to fulfill their sworn duties in responding to a disabled veteran's 2019 sexual assault claim at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center."

Other veterans groups called not only for Wilkie's resignation or removal, but also the removal of his senior staff and an investigation into a sitting Congressman named in the watchdog report.

After a nearly yearlong investigation, VA's independent watchdog, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), released a report Thursday that found Wilkie and senior VA officials sought to discredit the veteran and senior Congressional advisor, repeatedly questioning her credibility and failing to properly handle her case.

"Our organizations have concluded that as a result of the Secretary's personal actions in this matter, he no longer has the trust or confidence of America's veterans and should be removed," the VSOs said in their letter to Trump.

The OIG report showed VA leaders failed to take action against the man accused of sexually assaulting the veteran. VA police ran a background check on the veteran almost immediately, sharing it with senior leaders, but it took days for them to run the same check on the man accused of the assault -- a VA contractor with a history of sexually harassing VA staff, a criminal background and a lack of credentials to be at the hospital the day of the assault. VA took no action against the contractor.

Wilkie denied allegations made against him, including accusations that he sought damaging information on the veteran and ordered his staff to investigate her and then shop that information to national media. While the OIG could not substantiate that Wilkie formally investigated, or ordered staff to investigate the veteran, it did find he mishandled the case, that he and his staff repeatedly disparaged her, and his staff sought, on at least one occasion, to shop information to national media.

The OIG report shows that several senior VA officials played a role in mishandling the case, but the findings made clear that Wilkie himself established a defensive position "and made decisions to personally disparage the veteran" and circumvent the investigation, the VSOs wrote to the president.

"This is a tremendous breach of trust among veterans and Secretary Wilkie must be held accountable," the VSOs said. "His actions not only threaten to deter veterans from seeking care at VA, but also undermine the efforts of VA staff who have been working to bring an end to sexual harassment throughout the department."

Reports and survey results released earlier this year showed at least one in four women veterans reported sexual harassment at VA and one in four VA employees reported sexual harassment at work. The Government Accountability Office earlier this year released a report showing that VA's sexual harassment policies were "inconsistent and incomplete."

The VSOs told the president that helping veterans who experience sexual harassment and assault at VA will take leadership the department doesn't currently have.

"Solving this problem takes strong and committed leadership and we no longer believe Secretary Wilkie is capable of leading this charge or performing his duties in the best interest of veterans," the VSOs said. "Sexual assault and harassment have no place in the VA or our society as a whole. As the Secretary has refused to take responsibility for his wrongdoing in this matter, we ... call on you to take further action by immediately removing him from office."

Other veteran organizations all called for Wilkie and VA senior leaders to be removed, including Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Minority Veterans of America, Modern Military Association of America, National Veterans Legal Services Program, NYC Veterans Alliance, Common Defense, Vote Vets, Student Veterans of America, Jewish War Veterans and Mission Continues.

A coalition of veterans organizations, in a letter Wednesday to Veterans Affairs and Ethics committee leadership in Congress, called for an ethics investigation of Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, also named in the watchdog report. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, previously called for an ethics investigation into allegations against Crenshaw.

Those groups included: Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Minority Veterans of America, Protect our Defenders, NYC Veterans Alliance, Vote Vets, High Ground Veterans, Modern Military Association of America, Not in My Marines, Black Veterans Project and The Pink Berets.

The groups argued that the watchdog report outlined "blatant and overt attempts" by Wilkie, senior VA leaders and Crenshaw to discredit and disparage the veteran, "a direct violation of the values that the veteran community holds most dear -- those of honor, duty and integrity."

Crenshaw's staff previously denied that he had any involvement or contact from VA regarding the veteran's case and on Twitter Wednesday, Crenshaw argued the situation is a partisan ploy to harm him. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, called for a Congressional ethics investigation into allegations against Crenshaw.

"Secretary Wilkie has led VA to achieve landmark improvements in veterans’ trust, quality of care and employee satisfaction," Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets Saturday. "He will continue to lead the department, including its historic response to the COVID-19 pandemic."

The White House did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett. Sign up for the Connecting Vets weekly newsletter to get more stories like this delivered to your inbox.