No Charges in Assault Complaint at V.A. Hospital, and a Public Fight Erupts

WASHINGTON — Federal authorities have declined to file charges after a House staff member said she was sexually assaulted at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Washington, setting up a highly unusual public confrontation among a cabinet secretary, a congressional committee chairman and an inspector general.

In September, Andrea Goldstein, a Navy veteran and the senior policy adviser for the Women Veterans Task Force on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said she was assaulted on Sept. 20 while buying a snack at the medical center’s cafeteria. Ms. Goldstein, who works on the sexual assault issue for the committee, said a man slammed his body against hers below the waist and told her that “you look like you could use a good time,” Ms. Goldstein said in an interview.

“He pressed his entire body against mine,” she added.

Her complaint was investigated by the V.A. Office of Inspector General at the direction of the Veterans Affairs secretary, Robert Wilkie, as well as law enforcement officials, who declined to bring any charges this week. According to committee officials, video cameras at the hospital that might have captured the episode were not working, impeding the investigation.

The complaint underscored a major problem for many V.A. hospitals across the country trying to draw female veterans — the largest growing segment of the veteran population — even as many of them report harassment and worse at the agency’s centers.

Representative Mark Takano, Democrat of California and the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, had written a letter to Mr. Wilkie at the time of the complaint seeking an arrest. This week, in a letter to Mr. Takano, Mr. Wilkie said he had spoken to the inspector general, Michael J. Missal, and concluded that Mr. Takano had made “unsubstantiated claims” about the case.

“We believe that V.A. is a safe place for all veterans to enter and receive care and services, but the unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve,” Mr. Wilkie said in the letter.

In an equally unusual rebuke, Mr. Missal then wrote to Mr. Wilkie saying that characterizing Ms. Goldstein’s allegation as unsubstantiated was incorrect. “Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the department that the allegations were unsubstantiated,” Mr. Missal wrote. “Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean that the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated.”

Mr. Takano, in his own response, called Mr. Wilkie’s letter “shockingly tone-deaf” and “outrageous.”

“When my staffer bravely came forward in September, she did so in the spirit of wanting other women veterans to feel safe,” Mr. Takano said in the statement. “But 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 V.A. is tolerated.”

A survey conducted by the department last year found that one in four female veterans reported harassment from other veterans at V.A. facilities.

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