The former deputy secretary at the Department of Veterans Affairs claims he was fired for refusing to take part in a concerted effort to damage the reputation of a Navy officer and congressional staffer who said she was sexually assaulted at the Washington, D.C., VA hospital.
James Byrne told Newsweek in a story published Thursday that VA Secretary Robert Wilkie engaged in an effort to discredit the veteran, and he was fired for refusing to go along. Byrne is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and former federal prosecutor who served as the department’s general counsel and, later, deputy secretary.
"I wouldn't, personally, or direct or encourage anybody, to trash this woman's reputation and credibility," Byrne told the magazine in an exclusive interview.
Last September, Andrea Goldstein, a Navy Reserve intelligence officer and lead staff member for the House Veterans Affairs Committee's Women Veterans Task Force, said she was propositioned, body checked and groped by a man at the Washington, D.C., VA Medical Center.
During a press conference a week after the alleged assault, Goldstein said several VA employees witnessed the incident but did not intervene. Police were called, she added, only after she reported the incident to "multiple employees -- a worker at the information desk, the patient advocate, and finally my doctor."
The incident drew the attention of Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who, as chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, has oversight of and sets policy for the VA. In a response to the allegations, Takano called on the department to ensure that its employees take bystander intervention training so that they know how to react, intervene and respond.
The VA Office of Inspector General launched an investigation into the incident, but no charges were filed. Among the reasons VA officials cited in not pursuing the case was that the security cameras at the facility were not working, impeding the investigation.
A letter to the House committee from Wilkie, following release of the OIG's investigation, then touched off a political firestorm over the incident. In his letter, Wilkie called the claims "unsubstantiated" and said they "could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve."
But in a rare response, VA OIG Michael Missal told Wilkie that his characterization of the allegation as unsubstantiated was incorrect.
Takano called the letter "outrageous" and "shockingly tone-deaf."
“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," Takano said.
A month later, after receiving reports that Wilkie had actively attempted to discredit Goldstein, Takano and the committee asked Missal to investigate the secretary.
Byrne told Newsweek that Wilkie believed Goldstein conspired with Takano and Democratic leadership to fabricate the incident in an effort to discredit the administration of President Donald Trump.
"From the very beginning, [Wilkie] was saying it was all BS, that it was totally orchestrated, that this thing was totally orchestrated by [the alleged victim] and Takano to attack him and the VA," he told the magazine.
According to Byrne, Wilkie said Goldstein was "a serial complainer" and a "pain in the ass" who had filed six similar complaints against commanders in the past.
Goldstein's lawyer, Mark Zaid, told Newsweek the allegations about his client's prior complaints were "absolutely false." He confirmed she had filed one complaint while serving on active duty, and "the perpetrator was disciplined as a result because her complaint was substantiated."
Zaid told Military.com he plans to seek access to internal VA documents on the incident and will “continue to push for OIG to conclude its investigation.” “Obviously COVID has hampered the OIGs ability to timely complete its investigation, but hopefully they are nearing the end,” Zaid said.
Byrne said Wilkie's response made him increasingly uncomfortable, and he tried to distance himself from the situation.
"I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, he's gone from just spouting off crazy foolishness to maybe he did actually try to trash this woman,'" Byrne said. "At the time, I thought, 'Oh, my God, he did go try to dig up dirt on this woman,' and he's, of course, exaggerated it."
According to Byrne, when it became clear he wouldn't budge, his work dynamic changed.
"It was basically like the end of our relationship," he said.
In response to questions about the article from Military.com, VA spokeswoman Christina Noel said the allegations against Wilkie are false and Byrne was fired for "inappropriate conduct, erratic behavior, as well as general incompetence.”
In a surprisingly detailed and unsubstantiated statement from an organization about a former employee’s firing, Noel said Byrne was terminated in part for behavior toward female executives.
The executives in question were not named, and Noel did not provide any proof of the alleged events. She said Byrne was offered the chance to resign but did not take it.
"Secretary Wilkie, in an effort to spare Mr. Byrne personal embarrassment, said publicly that Mr. Byrne did not jell [sic] with the organization," she said.
In an interview with Military.com, Byrne categorically denied the version of events that Noel distributed to the press, calling it “slanderous … and baseless.”
“This IG report is going to have all kinds of people that had the courage and were compelled to share what happened. … The whole thing is unseemly,” Byrne said.
In a statement, Takano said his committee will not "turn a blind eye to inappropriate behavior or statements that seek to discredit survivors of sexual assault or harassment."
"Sadly, this type of denial and an unwillingness to seek out truth is exactly the problem that has plagued VA and our nation's military -- casting doubt on survivors and sullying their good names will not fix the decades of injustice these service members have endured," he said. "If VA hopes to fully embrace the contributions these survivors have made to our country, it must step up and build a change in culture -- a change that starts at the top."
Byrne said he went public after the election because he didn’t want the story to become part of the politics surrounding the campaigns and he fears Missal’s report is being squelched.
“My concern is that VA will continue to obstruct, in some way, release of the report,” he said.
Missal declined to say when the investigation into Wilkie's behavior will be released.
"This matter remains a high priority for our office. We will publish a report of our findings when it is completed," the VA OIG said in statement to Military.com.
A report released earlier this year found that nearly 1 in 4 VA employees said they have been subjected to unwanted sexual comments and other harassment. While the VA has taken steps to improve services and expand care for female veterans, patients continue to describe a male-centric culture at many facilities that prompts them to seek care elsewhere.
“[It] saddens me, the politics of all this. I think the VA continues to get better with health care. The medical centers and [regional] directors are rock stars. ... But the turmoil of the Central Office causes veterans to turn away and, in some cases, lose their lives,” Byrne told Military.com.