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Lawmakers accuse VA secretary of ignoring sexual harassment charges

House Republicans on Wednesday accused Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough of ignoring claims of sexual harassment and employee intimidation at the department’s diversity office, missteps they believe have undermined public and employee faith in the department.

McDonough acknowledged serious leadership problems at the Office of Resolution Management, Diversity, and Inclusion in recent years but insisted that the issue was not ignored or covered up. He also vowed improvements to prevent the problems in the months to come.

And Democratic lawmakers blasted their Republican colleagues for what they see as exaggerating and politicizing a department problem for election year attention instead of working to fix the issues.

The contentious hearing before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee came one day after House lawmakers impeached Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas along party lines, the culmination of months of congressional investigations into his handling of U.S. border security policies.

House panel seeks VA documents on sexual harassment accusations

With partisan tensions still simmering on Wednesday, McDonough was the next Cabinet secretary to face congressional anger, with even more scrutiny promised in the coming weeks.

“We will find the truth, no matter how long it takes,” said committee Chairman Rep. Mike Bost, R-Ill. “We are going to continue to demand answers from the department and pursue this investigation as far as it goes.”

Bost called the office “a broken organization that has been poisoned with a toxic culture by bad leaders,” and called the accusations evidence that VA is “broken and dysfunctional.”

The investigation centers on a pair of whistleblowers who worked in the ORMDI office and accused supervisors of unwanted advances and sending sexually harassing messages to them over several months. The committee was contacted by the whistleblowers last fall after inaction from VA officials regarding their complaints.

ORMDI Chief of Staff Archie Davis was reassigned last fall after the accusations became public. Two officials accused of ignoring the whistleblower complaints — Harvey Johnson, deputy assistant secretary for ORMDI, and Gina Grosso, assistant secretary for human resources — have left the department since last November.

Officials from the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection have recommended Davis be fired and have performance bonuses from recent years recouped. They also recommended officials rescind bonuses from Johnson and note in official records that he resigned while under investigation.

In his testimony Wednesday, McDonough said that “VA does not tolerate sexual harassment” and acknowledged that “recently ORMDI fell short of that goal” in this case.

“I assure veterans and this committee that we have treated these allegations of wrongdoing at ORMDI with seriousness,” he said. “VA is strengthening its policies, procedures, personnel, training, and structure to improve its handling of sexual harassment allegations and help eliminate sexual harassment in the future.”

Cassandra Law, VA’s assistant secretary for Human Resources, said officials have already taken steps to fire one individual involved in the investigation and are working on additional disciplinary measures. But Republican lawmakers took issue with the speed of the response and other parts of McDonough’s reaction to the accusations.

The committee sent the whistleblower complaints to senior VA leaders in late September, several weeks before the whistleblowers officially filed them with his office. McDonough did not respond directly to the committee until mid-November, although some internal investigative work was started in October.

Bost called the delay inexcusable. Members also questioned McDonough’s decision to quietly dismiss Grosso, a move he insisted was not connected to any of the ORMDI failings.

“The American people are so upset and angry that no one in the federal government is ever held accountable,” said Rep. Mariannette Miller-Meeks, R-Iowa. “I find the conduct of this office deplorable.”

But committee Democrats said they believe the supervisors at fault are being held accountable, albeit more slowly than they would like. Ranking member Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif.,said Republican members publicizing details of the ongoing investigation have damaged that work and hurt efforts for reform.

“My colleagues across the aisle are either being intentionally reckless and cavalier with the truth or willfully blind as they continue to push their narrative of widespread misconduct in ORMDI,” he said.

Democratic lawmakers also said evidence uncovered by the investigation does not support accusations of widespread mismanagement at VA, and criticized claims leadership is unaware or uncaring.

Last month, the committee voted nearly unanimously, with only Takano opposed, to subpoena thousands of documents related to the case and senior leadership response to the accusations. Bost said officials have not yet fully complied with that subpoena.

McDonough promised to do so, but several Democrats on the panel said they now feel conflicted by those subpoenas because of misinformation supplied by Republican colleagues. Committee leaders had scheduled a meeting later on Wednesday to issue additional subpoenas but canceled that after McDonough’s appearance.

Officials have already provided more than 50,000 documents related to the case, including 40 transcribed interviews from VA’s internal investigations. A heavily redacted copy of the OAWP report was provided to reporters ahead of the committee hearing.

McDonough would not directly comment on the report but said it highlights the need to update the department’s policies on fraternization and appropriate workplace behavior. The department does not currently have an anti-fraternization policy regarding relationships between supervisors and subordinates.

Republican members promised further investigation and hearings on the harassment and VA response in the future.

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