VA sexual harassment investigation recommends firing, recouping bonuses from supervisors

An internal investigation at the Department of Veterans Affairs has substantiated claims of sexual harassment carried out by senior leaders in an office that no...

An internal investigation at the Department of Veterans Affairs has substantiated claims of sexual harassment carried out by senior leaders in an office that normally deals with these types of complaints.

VA’s Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection (OAWP), in a final report completed and sent to House lawmakers late last month, substantiated whistleblower allegations of misconduct and inappropriate relationships within the Office of Resolution Management, Diversity & Inclusion (ORMDI).

“The mountain of evidence and testimony revealed an office replete with misconduct, including misconduct by organization leaders, which spawned an environment where inappropriate conduct was rampant,” the Jan. 26 report states.

OAWP recommends disciplinary action against five current and former VA officials, including the firing of one supervisor and clawing back bonuses paid for high performance ratings.

The report substantiated claims of a high-ranking VA official “sexting” with a VA employee subordinate to him within ORMDI, and sharing graphic images and messages with a second employee. The report also found leaders engaged in “bullying and abusive behavior.”

The VA released a copy of its final report in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, with redactions that protect the identities of VA employees involved in the investigation.

“Given the importance of ORMDI’s function to the ultimate success of VA’s mission, and given the systemic deficiencies and failures documented in this report, VA must take immediate action to restore VA employees’ trust in ORMDI,” the report states.

OAWP interviewed over 40 witnesses, reviewed over 600 documents and searched through over 300,000 emails and Microsoft Teams messages.

“While OAWP did not identify individual misconduct on the part of every leader in the organization, the global leadership deficiencies and failures documented herein indicate the need for a reset to ensure that VA, and ORMDI in particular — the very office charged with addressing allegations of discrimination and workplace harassment — have a zero-tolerance policy for all forms of misconduct and harassment, not just in word, but in action,” the report states.

VA Secretary Denis McDonough told the House VA Committee in a hearing Wednesday that the behavior substantiated by the OAWP report “suggests a real culture issue with ORMDI” and that “disciplinary action is extraordinarily important.”

Committee Chairman Mike Bost (R-Ill.) said VA employees reported some of the sexual harassment allegations to the department, starting in July 2022. But said the VA didn’t act on those allegations until November 2023, after he had sent two letters and made a phone call to McDonough.

“There is no question that I’ve failed in this instance. And I’m learning from that feeling. And we’re taking concrete steps to address it,” McDonough told lawmakers.

McDonough said VA’s investigation found “competing requirements” on the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) chain of command with VA, “and we can address those.”

OAWP’s report finds two pieces of legislation passed by Congress give conflicting requirements on the EEO chain of command that reports directly to the VA secretary.

“I just want to hasten that none of those obviate our responsibility to ensure that our employees, when they speak, they’re heard that when they feel like they’re being mistreated, or they’re working in an unsafe work environment, that they don’t get support. And that’s my biggest failing as a leader in this instance, that this employee felt that way. And I am bound and determined to make sure that doesn’t happen again,” McDonough said.

ORMDI handles the VA’s harassment prevention, EEO, diversity and inclusion, and reasonable accommodations functions.

ORMDI, according to the OAWP’s report, “is charged with addressing allegations of discrimination and promoting VA’s zero-tolerance policy for workplace harassment.”

 Bost (R-Ill.) said during the hearing that the OAWP report confirms much of what the whistleblowers shared with the committee, and that ORMDI is “full of misconduct to the highest degree.”

“This is an organization that has completely lost the trust of the over 300,000 VA employees they are supposed to protect,” Bost said.

Bost and committee members demanded McDonough take immediate action to discipline VA employees, as recommended by the OAWP report.

“I think we will all see how the broken civil service system deters good employees from reporting misconduct, and delays justice for those who commit it,” Bost said. “If the average American did half of the inappropriate actions outlined in this report, they would face severe consequences at 99% of businesses around the country.”

The committee approved a subpoena last month demanding more documents and records from the VA’s internal investigation.

Committee Ranking Member Mark Takano (D-Calif.), the only committee member to vote against the subpoena, said that “this type of misconduct can never be tolerated in an organization, and VA must do everything they can to restore employee confidence and morale in ORMDI.”

While Takano voiced concerns about the OAWP’s findings, he rejected the committee majority’s position that the VA had not complied with the subpoena.

“I do not in any way agree with that assertion. It is my belief that VA has acted in good faith and has provided information at a reasonable pace,” he said.

OAWP recommends the VA fire Archie Davis, an executive assistant and informally the chief of staff for ORMDI. It also recommends the VA recoup bonuses he received in fiscal 2023 and 2022.

The report also recommends the VA recover bonuses paid to former ORMDI Deputy Assistant Secretary Harvey Johnson.

Johnson retired from federal service at the end of last year, but OAWP recommends his Electronic Official Personnel Folder be permanently noted that he resigned while under an investigation that substantiated misconduct allegations.

OAWP recommends Gary Richardson, Western Region VBA Equal Employment Opportunity supervisor at ORMDI, and another employee whose name is redacted, “receive no less than a suspension.”

The report also recommends Jeffrey Mayo, the principal deputy assistant secretary for Human Resources and Administration, “receive training regarding management’s duty to take action upon being notified of sexual harassment allegations.”

The report substantiated that Davis “engaged in an inappropriate personal relationship” with a subordinate employee, and “engaged in inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature.”

OAWP also found that Davis used inappropriate and unprofessional language in the workplace and “contributed to the creation of a hostile, toxic and unprofessional work environment.”

The report also corroborates that Johnson “failed to take prompt and appropriate action” when notified of allegations that Davis was harassing “and potentially threatening” employees.”

“Given that Respondent Johnson was Davis’ immediate supervisor, he either knew or should have known of Davis’ wide-ranging and pervasive misconduct, yet he failed to take appropriate supervisory action to address Davis’s behavior and, in fact, rated Davis exceptional in every category, resulting in an overall Outstanding rating — the highest rating possible. This was a significant leadership failure,” the report states.

OAWP finds Mayo “failed to ensure prompt and appropriate action was taken when notified of the allegations” against Davis.

The report also substantiates claims that Richardson “engaged in inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature” with employees.

According to OAWP’s report, Davis told investigators that the messages were consensual.

The report, however, counters that “even if the messages were consensual and exchanged on private cell phones, it was not appropriate for Respondent Davis, as a leader in the organization, to have engaged in or encouraged such behavior from a subordinate employee, and there is evidence that some of the sexting occurred during normal duty hours.”

OAWP said text messages from the employee shared with investigators “corroborated testimony that she largely ignored or changed the subject after receiving sexual text messages from Respondent Davis.”

A VA employee said she occasionally sent Davis photos that she would have felt comfortable sending her family or posting on Facebook, and that she felt obligated to keep sending Davis photos “so she did not feel his wrath.”

The employee said Davis bragged about “different things he’s done to people” and “because he’s the [C]hief of [S]taff, you get on his bad side, that’s it, your ass is grass.”

The employee testified that she also felt “stuck,” because she had reported Richardson for sexual harassment in 2022, and ORMDI did not do anything about it.

“Sweeping it under the rug, not even investigating it. So, here I am dealing with somebody as the Chief of Staff, several layers up. I felt stuck. It was plenty of times I felt like I be damned, here we go again. Here I go again. I didn’t ask for this,” the employee told investigators.

According to OAWP, the employee told investigators that after sending him photos, Davis “sometimes responded with comments like ‘”you’re holding back’ or ‘where are the real photos at?’”

The employee told investigators that she “tried not to engage in Respondent Davis’ sexual comments, hoping his interest would fade away.”

“Men tend to say certain things, so I’d blow it off … when he would say certain things …  I’d change the subject or whatever … I’m like … well if I don’t engage in it … he’s just being mean. If I don’t engage in it, it’ll blow off,” the report states.

According to the report, Davis sent highly sexual and suggestive texts to the employee, telling her that, “We can go ahead and wear out each other and get that outta the way. Then we will see what happens from there.”

“You might as well accept that I am stuck on you exactly the way you want it,” Davis allegedly wrote in another text.

The employee told OAWP that Davis sent her an email accusing her of “insubordination” in July 2023, after she secured approval from the Veterans Benefits Administration to pay for the final night of a hotel stay at a week-long conference. The Employee worried that Davis was starting a “paper trail to use against her,” and so filed a complaint against him.

Another VA employee testified before investigators that she never dated Davis, and never pursued a relationship with him, but admitted to “sexting” with him.

That employee told investigators that she never felt sexually harassed by Davis.

“What we did might be inappropriate to some people, but like I said, I enjoyed myself,” she told investigators.

OAWP stated in its report that even if this behavior was consensual, “this misconduct negatively affected the work environment and damaged the reputation of the organization, as it was known by other employees that they were sexting each other.”

The OAWP report recommends disciplinary action against Johnson, because Davis’ substantiated misconduct “was so wide-ranging, pervasive, and widely known, that Respondent Johnson — as his first line supervisor — either knew or should have that it was contributing to a hostile, toxic, and unprofessional work environment.”

Johnson continued to give high marks to Davis’ performance. In fiscal 2023, Johnson gave him an overall rating of “outstanding,” and “granted him great autonomy and authority in his position as Executive Assistant (CoS), which enabled Respondent Davis to continue his abusive and toxic ways with VA colleagues.”

“Respondent Johnson did not take any effective steps to prevent future inappropriate conduct or to counsel Respondent Davis, despite having text messages indicating problematic conduct (which Respondent Johnson admits he did not view) and evidence of potential threats to employees’ safety,” the report states.

The report states Mayo had a duty to ensure that Johnson, a subordinate, followed VA policy by promptly and effectively addressing harassment and workplace violence allegations.

OAWP report also finds Richardson made comments to an employee on Teams calls that she told investigators made her feel uncomfortable.

Those remarks, according to the report, include “Good morning beautiful … How you doing? … I just want to hear your voice to get my day started.”

Gina Grosso, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration, and operations, security and preparedness, left the department last December, soon after the VA and the House VA began its investigations.

But McDonough said Grosso’s departure had nothing to do with her handling of the sexual harassment claims at ORMDI.

Rather, he said he had begun to “lose confidence” with her on a range of issues, including how the VA improperly issues critical skills incentives.

According to the OAWP report, Grosso told investigators that OAWP didn’t have jurisdiction to look into the allegations against Davis. She told investigators she consulted with VA’s Office of General Counsel, which convened an Administrative Investigative Board (AIB) to investigate the allegations against Davis.

According to OAWP, however, Grosso stated that finding someone to conduct an investigation “took a little bit of time” and “probably should have moved quicker.”

McDonough told reporters in a Jan. 30 press conference that Cassandra Law, VA’s assistant secretary for human resources and administration, and operations, security and preparedness, ordered a review of all VA training materials on sexual assault, sexual harassment and bystander training to “make sure it’s up to snuff.”

McDonough said Law has also ordered all component heads at VA’s Central Office, as well as at VHA, VBA and the National Cemetery Administration, to participate in a “stand down” on sexual assault and harassment claims in the workplace, “so that we can remind ourselves of that culture of non-tolerance of such activity.”

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