Politics

Veterans Affairs Deputy Secretary James Byrne fired amid controversy over department's handling of sex assault allegation

Key Points
  • Veterans Affairs Department Deputy Secretary James Byrne was fired amid controversy over the department's handling of a sexual assault allegation by a House staffer visiting a VA facility.
  • VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he dismissed Byrne just five months after he was confirmed by the Senate "due to loss of confidence in Mr. Byrne's ability to carry out his duties."
  • Byrne's firing came as the VA continued to be criticized for its treatment of an allegation by Andrea Goldstein, an advisor to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.
  • Christina Mandreucci, Wilkie's spokeswoman, said Bryne's "dismissal had nothing to do with that" issue of how the VA had dealt with the sex assault claim by the House staff member.
U.S. Sen. Dean Heller (R-NV) is introduced by Acting Deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs James Byrne (R) before a talk by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (not pictured) at Nellis Air Force Base on September 7, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Ethan Miller | Getty Images

Veterans Affairs Department Deputy Secretary James Byrne was fired Monday, amid controversy over how the department handled a sexual assault allegation by a House staffer visiting a VA facility last year.

VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said he dismissed Byrne just five months after he was confirmed by the Senate "due to loss of confidence in Mr. Byrne's ability to carry out his duties."

Wilkie gave no further details of why ousted he Byrne, a 55-year-old Naval Academy graduate and former Marine infantry officer.

Christina Mandreucci, Wilkie's spokeswoman, said Bryne's "dismissal had nothing to do with that" issue of how the VA had dealt with the sex assault claim by the House staff member.

Axios first reported Byrne's termination.

Before being confirmed in a 88-11 Senate vote, Byrne served since August 2018 as acting deputy secretary of the VA. He was named general counsel of the department a year earlier.

Byrne previously worked at Lockheed Martin as that defense contractor's chief privacy officer, and the company's lead attorney for information technology, cybersecurity and counterintelligence.

Byrne's firing came as the VA continued to be criticized for its treatment of an allegation by Andrea Goldstein, an advisor to the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs.

Goldstein, who is also a Navy veteran, has said she was sexually harassed and assaulted last September by an unidentified man when she was waiting for a drink in a cafe at the VA Medical Center in Washington.

The man "slammed her below the waist and told her that 'you look like you could use a good time,' " Goldstein told The New York Times a week after the incident. "He pressed his entire body against mine."

Goldstein told the newspapers that she was able to get away from the man, but that despite complaining to several workers at the center, police were called only after she saw her doctor at the site.

Byrne was briefed last month by the VA's internal watchdog about its investigation of Goldstein's allegations, which also were the subject of a criminal probe.

On Monday, shortly before Byrne's firing was made public, Jezebel.com published an article by Goldstein in which she criticized Wilkie for "implying that I was a liar" by calling her allegations "unsubstantiated claims" that could discourage veterans from obtaining health care from VA facilities.

Wilkie's characterization was made in a letter last month to Goldstein's boss, Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., after authorities did not file charges in her 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," Wilkie wrote in his letter to Takano.

Goldstein, in her article Monday, wrote that after reading Wilkie's letter last month, "I hid in a stairwell in the Longworth House Office Building and began to shake with rage and horror."

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

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She added, "Secretary Wilkie's continued refusal to take ownership of the hostility and sexual violence at VA further perpetuated this hostile culture by both revictimizing a veteran in public and denying the culture of harassment and assault whose existence is well documented."

VA Inspector General Michael Missal, who investigated Goldstein's claims, last month wrote Wilkie to dispute the idea that her allegations were "unsubstantiated."

Missal noted that he had discussed Goldstein's account with Byrne and VA Chief of Staff Pamela Powers last month and "specifically told them that the investigation had been closed without charges and that no other characterization could or should be made regarding the outcome of the investigation."

"Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the Department that the allegations were unsubstantiated," Missal wrote the VA chief.

"I trust that this clarifies this matter and you will ensure that no one is informed that our investigation concluded that the sexual assault allegation at issue was not substantiated."

Takano, in his own letter to Wilkie last month, called his comment on Goldstein's claims "shockingly tone-deaf," and said Wilkie's letter was "flippant."

"I am aghast that Secretary Wilkie would think it appropriate to call into question allegations of sexual assault raised by one of our nation's veterans," Takano wrote.

"And for VA — an agency charged with providing trauma-informed care for survivors of sexual harassment and assault-- to itself retraumatize and defame a fellow veteran, is disgusting."

On Monday, after Byrne was fired, Takano said in a prepared statement that he had spoken with Wilkie that morning "about changes to VA's staff structure."

Despite that, Takano said, "I have many questions about what Deputy Secretary Byrne's firing means for our veterans and VA as a whole."

"Deputy Secretary Byrne was confirmed by the Senate — the American people deserve to know why he was dismissed," Takano said."As Chairman of this Committee, it is my duty to ensure veterans receive timely access to care and benefits without delay, and I want to make sure this personnel decision will not impact that commitment. Secretary Wilkie has agreed to meet with me to discuss this leadership change in detail, and I look forward to speaking with him."

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