When nasty letters replace real interaction

A young woman employed on Capitol Hill visits the Department of Veterans Affairs D.C. health center. In a crowded cafeteria, a man “slams” his body against hers, and accompanies his gesture with a lewd comment.

That’s the allegation of Andrea Goldstein, adviser to the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a veteran of the Navy. The incident incorporated so many contemporary issues and themes, from #MeToo to what sort of environments the VA operates. Yet nothing is sure or settled about the case. It only shows how difficult these types of cases are to sort out in reality. It also shows how easily people who should be working together for a common good end up feuding publicly instead.

A brief summary of events:

  • September 2019: Goldstein says she is assaulted in the VA medical center
  • Sept. 20, 2019: Committee chair Mark Takano (D-Calif.) writes about it to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie. The letter is no longer at Takano’s website.
  • Sometime later in September, Wilkie responded to Takano.
  • Oct. 16: Wilkie, in another letter to Takano, reiterates that he takes the allegations seriously, and that he’d referred the matter to VA Inspector General Michael Missal. This letter also says discussions with Missal and the Justice Department led Wilkie to understand the matter was closed, with no charges filed. Wilkie refers to the “unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff,” saying they “could deter our Veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.”
  • Jan. 15: An incensed Takano called Wilkie’s letter “flippant” and “outrageous” and “shockingly tone deaf.” He’s joined by Rep. Julia Brownley (D-Calif.), chair of the subcommittee on health. In their release, they refer to “shaming” VA, that particularly post-social-media phenomenon. (This release is also now absent from Takano’s web site.)

Now, the New York Times, Stars and Stripes and others have reported that Missal chided Wilkie for that “unsubstantiated” charge. In a tough letter, Missal wrote, “Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else at the department that the allegations were unsubstantiated. Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean that the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated.”

I’ve talked to Missal on several occasions, discussing other IG  findings. I’ve also interviewed Takano. I’ve never spoken to Wilkie but I have heard him speak a couple of times. They’ve all sounded serious, informed and reasonable. But now everyone is throwing bombs.

A big unknown in the episode is, who was the man who slammed into Goldstein? A veteran patient? A staff member? A contractor? Turns out video surveillance cameras that might have recorded the scene weren’t working.

A case is closed. No one lodged charges. Yet an official is chided for concluding the charges were unsubstantiated. My guess — and it is a guess — is that the incident occurred as Goldstein said, but no one could identify or find the man who did it.

The facts in this particular case may be murky, but it’s fair to say VA has struggled with the perception that its facilities are inhospitable to female patients — a perception underscored by many reported incidents and the subject of many hearings. Both Democrats and Republicans have expressed frustration at these incidents and with what some see as a culture which fosters them.

Allegations such as Goldstein’s should neither be trivialized nor exaggerated. Organizations like VA have to work on two fronts — dealing with each incident fairly and transparently, and seeking long-term solutions to change the culture if that is called for.

Neither is easy, though the strategies are clear. But they’ll be impeded to the extent that the responsible parties choose to communicate by incendiary letter or press release. It’s true that Missal’s office is a Metro stop away from Wilkie’s VA headquarters location, and that Capitol Hill is not convenient to either one of them. But they all have telephones. Or they could hop on scooters to have a meeting to ask, “How shall we deal with this?” or something?

Yes, there is a political overlay to all of this. Missal was appointed by President Barack Obama, Wilkie by President Donald Trump. Takano is a California Democrat. But it’s not as if they disagree that sexual harassment is bad. Once the war of written recrimination gets underway, the effect is similar to that of an escalating email exchange. Pick up the phone and talk, people.

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