House committee subpoenas VA for records in sexual harassment investigation

House lawmakers are calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to shed more light on an internal investigation of alleged sexual harassment. 

House lawmakers are calling on the Department of Veterans Affairs to shed more light on an investigation of alleged sexual harassment in its office that normally deals with these types of claims.

The House VA Committee on Thursday voted 22-1 to approve a subpoena demanding more documents and records from the VA’s internal investigation.

Committee Chairman Mike Bost (R-Ill.) said VA employees contacted the committee in September 2023 with allegations of alleged sexual assessment and misconduct from leaders within the Office of Resolution Management, Diversity & Inclusion (ORMDI).

“I’ve seen damning evidence of sexual harassment that was ignored by senior officials at VA for months,” Bost said. “If it was not for the brave whistleblowers and this committee’s investigation, there is no telling where or if VA would have taken the sexual harassment allegations seriously.”

VA employees who contacted the committee claimed they received explicit text messages from ORMDI leaders, and faced retaliation in the workplace for turning down their advances.

Bost said these employees reported some of the sexual harassment allegations to the VA starting in July 2022. He said the VA didn’t act on those allegations until November 2023, after he had sent two letters and called VA Secretary Denis McDonough.

“Women who have endured sexual harassment are stonewalled by the VA,  so they turned to Congress for something to be done. That, in itself, is unacceptable,” Bost said.

Bost said the VA senior officials accused of sexual harassment have retired, resigned or been reassigned to new positions within the department.

The committee has sent seven letters to the VA seeking more information.

VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said in a statement that VA will provide the committee with a final report on its internal investigation by the end of the month.

“VA does not tolerate sexual harassment. We are treating these allegations with the utmost seriousness, have moved to aggressively investigate them, and will take swift and appropriate action,” Hayes said. “As always, we are committed to ensuring a safe, welcoming, and harassment-free environment for employees at VA.”

Hayes said that since November 2023, the VA has provided the committee with nearly 1,200 pages of documents, 27 transcribed interviews from VA’s internal investigation and briefings on the status of the investigations, as well as additional materials.

Committee Ranking Member Mark Takano (D-Calif.), the only committee member to vote against the subpoena, said the employees’ claims are “sensitive and significant and warrant a thorough investigation.”

“It is simply too early in this investigation to make conclusions of wrongdoing or to say VA is not enforcing its workplace safety policies,” he said.

Takano said the VA “has tried in good faith to respond, while also trying to protect the integrity of the ongoing internal investigation.”

“If the VA investigation does find there was wrongdoing, VA has the tools to hold these employees accountable, and should take all appropriate action against wrongdoers, and should make affected employees whole,” he said.

Takano also raised concerns about the committee releasing the names of VA officials who are accused of sexual harassment prior to the conclusion of the investigation.

“I have not heard of a situation where the subjects of an investigation, even their names, are thrown out to the public. Doing so risks a rush to judgment without the full context of all the facts,” he said.

In addition to the VA’s own review, Takano said the Postal Service’s Equal Employment Opportunity Office is conducting a second investigation.

“Obviously, when they themselves are implicated, they can’t investigate themselves,” Takano said about ORMDI.

VA’s Office of Resolution Management, Diversity & Inclusion includes its Harassment Prevention Program (HPP), which provides centralized tracking, monitoring, and reporting of harassment allegations.

“We will report harassment allegations to VA leadership in order to ensure that prompt corrective measures are taken to decrease harassing behavior in the workplace,” HPP states on its website. 

Ranking Member of the Technology Modernization Subcommittee Sheila Cherfilus-McCormick (D-Fla.) urged the committee to protect the identity of the whistleblower, and to avoid sharing text messages or emails that could reveal her identity.

“I want to ensure that we can take extra steps and mechanisms to protect the whistleblower because part of the strength and bravery it takes to come out is to know that you’re actually going to be protected,” Cherfilus-McCormick said.

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