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Chairman Bost Delivers Opening Statement at VA Sexual Harassment and Misconduct Allegations Hearing: “Every level of VA failed these whistleblowers.”

WASHINGTON, DC – Today, House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Mike Bost (R-Ill.), delivered the following remarks, as prepared, to open the Committee's oversight hearing as part of the ongoing investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct within the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) Office of Resolution Management, Diversity, and Inclusion (ORMDI) – the very office that is charged with preventing sexual harassment and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at VA:


Good morning.


The Committee will come to order.


Last month, I presented the Committee’s initial investigation into allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct within the V.A. Office of Resolution Management, Diversity, and Inclusion.


The office that is charged with creating a V.A. free of harassment in all forms.


Since last month’s hearing, my staff has received further evidence, as well as testimony, from the brave whistleblowers, which has exposed this office for what it is….


A broken organization that has been poisoned with a toxic culture by bad leaders.


Over the last few weeks, majority and minority staff conducted over ten hours of transcribed interviews with the whistleblowers.


The whistleblowers are not testifying here today in order to protect their identities, and because many of them still fear retaliation by V.A. leaders. 


This fear is so real that the reason we were just in executive session was so the members of this Committee could hear a recording submitted by one of our brave whistleblowers.


We did this in executive session for the first time in at least 17 years to protect their identity as they are fearful for their career.


However, I am going to share some of their and other whistleblowers’ words today so that the American people can hear their stories.  


Please look at the quotes on the screen.


[I've been in this field for years. And to see this happen to an organization that should be protecting people from it. They don't adhere to laws. It's a sexually promiscuous environment. Things are allowed that aren't even allowed at other organizations, but it's allowed here.]


As you can see, this is an organization that has completely lost the trust of the over 300,000 V.A. employees they are supposed to protect.


Two weeks ago, V.A. sent the committee the results of their internal Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection investigation.


I will start by saying that I appreciate V.A. sharing this report and additional documentation with the committee.


I am also pleased that Mr. Gipe from the V.A. O.A.W.P. office is here today to speak about the report.


The findings of the report are damning, disturbing, and frankly despicable.


The report confirms much of what the whistleblowers shared with us, that V.A.’s O.R.M.D.I. office is full of misconduct to the highest degree.


This is unacceptable, but honestly not surprising given what this Committee continues to uncover. 


For months, these whistleblowers have told the Committee how their leaders have failed them. 


[“I sent it [complaint against Mr. Archie Davis] to the VA Secretary….I felt that if I didn't go to the very top, that with Harvey and Archie being in a position of power, being I felt like it wasn't going to go anywhere. I felt like my voice wasn't going to be heard.”


I ask you to read what the whistleblowers told this Committee and try to put yourself in their shoes.


The whistleblower reached out to the Secretary himself because they felt like their voice was not being heard.


This tragic story gets worse.


The Secretary is going to tell us in a few minutes that he does not recall that email.


But he acknowledges that he forwarded it to VA lawyers.


He also somehow remembered to send it to the U.S. Postal Service who reviews allegations of harassment at O.R.M.D.I.


It strains reasonableness that he remembered to send the email to this one entity outside of his organization but failed to remember the contents of the email which included many of the graphic text messages members of this Committee have seen.


And he is going to say that he does not recall seeing the letter I sent him on September 29th.


This whistleblower filed a complaint,


That wasn’t enough.


had a Chairman’s letter written on their behalf,


That wasn’t enough.


and contacted the Secretary himself.


That wasn't enough.


Mr. Secretary, the buck stops with you, right?


I hope in your testimony you explain why a Chairman’s letter and the whistleblower contacting you directly wasn’t enough to get your attention.


Throughout this investigation, the whistleblowers have also told me about the hostile and toxic work environment they experienced in V.A.’s O.R.M.D.I. office.


[Archie would always tell me a person never wants to get on his bad side, because once you get on his bad side, you will feel his wrath.]


Members, imagine how powerless it must feel to be treated like that and then be ignored when you speak up.


Some of you may know exactly how it feels.


The whistleblowers have told us about the harassment they experienced and their fear of retaliation.


One whistleblower commented how:


[Archie would always try to persuade me with money. Archie even asked me one time, "What is wrong with you?...I'm trying to offer to buy you this, that, and the other.  I'm trying to offer to fly you to D.C. And you just keep saying no. Any other woman would have taken me up on it. What's wrong with you?" 

“I would state to him, "There's nothing wrong with me."]


How broken and dysfunctional does an organization need to be to allow a senior supervisor to continue this behavior?


The internal V.A. investigation report confirmed most of the major allegations against senior V.A. O.R.M.D.I. leaders that I personally had informed Secretary McDonough about in my letter in September.


These include employees: 

•             Engaging in an inappropriate personal relationship with a subordinate employee.

•             Engaging in inappropriate conduct of a sexual nature.

•             Failing to initiate an investigation into sexual harassment allegations.

•             Failing to take prompt and appropriate action when notified of allegations that the Chief of Staff was harassing (and potentially threatening) employees.


Frankly, I would be stunned if anyone who had seen the evidence and listened to these whistleblowers thought differently. But apparently, they did.


We all remember the text messages that were provided to the Committee and how disgusting and graphic they were.


Later, you will see how V.A. H.R.’s top brass, Ms. Gina Grosso, dismissed them.


The O.A.W.P. report also made several recommendations on how V.A. should address this misconduct.


The jury’s still out on whether Joe Biden’s V.A. will follow these recommendations with action. 


I want the witnesses to listen carefully when I say this.


I will be paying close attention to what V.A. does with these recommendations,


and even more closely to how long it takes this administration to act.


Unfortunately, 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.


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.


I also doubt that, unlike the accused, few Americans would be allowed to continue to collect high, six figure taxpayer funded, salaries while their case was reviewed by an endless appeals system.


Even fewer would then be allowed to retire with a hefty pension.


But they will.


It is troubling V.A. did not start investigating the most serious sexual harassment allegations until 45 days after I personally informed the Secretary.


And it is inexcusable for the Department to delay addressing the broken and toxic situation within O.R.M.D.I. any longer.


On September 29th, I informed Secretary McDonough about the allegations against Mr. Harvey Johnson, Mr. Archie Davis, and Mr. Gary Richardson.


Former V.A. H.R. Assistant Secretary Gina Grosso, who refused to testify today, announced her resignation on November 14th.


This was the day after I called the Secretary and V.A. suddenly decided it was a good idea to look into this and reassign the accused.


Ms. Grosso oversaw Mr. Johnson and the O.R.M.D.I. office for over two years.


Four days after her resignation was official, V.A. wrote to me that Ms. Grosso had known about these allegations since October 2nd.


Once Ms. Grosso was out the door, V.A. was happy to tell us when she knew about these allegations.


No subpoena required.


In their report, O.A.W.P. quoted her explanation as to why it took so long for her to do anything.


[“There were so many complaints at once,” and “it took time to figure out who was the grieved.” And “it’s several things on the plate. . . . I don’t have any other great explanation honestly –


Simply having other things to do is not an acceptable reason to delay acting. 


To me, that’s just laziness.  


Additionally, Ms. Grosso made the following comment about the harassing text messages sent by Mr. Davis in her testimony to O.A.W.P.,


[The employee was feeling harassed, but she was continuing to text him, so that’s kind of weird. But it doesn’t mean it’s okay—I’m not saying that at all.


Clearly, Ms. Grosso did not take the referenced whistleblower’s concerns seriously.


Since the whistleblowers are not here to respond for themselves,


Here is what one whistleblower told Committee staff about how they dealt with Mr. Davis’ harassment.


[A: You know, I handled Archie differently than I would anyone else with a hard no.  You know, anyone else I wouldn't care how they took it, how they felt.  This was my soft no to let him down easy in my mind -  

Q: Okay.

A: - in my mind.

Q: Sorry.  I was just going to say you wanted to use a soft no because, again, you were afraid of what would happen if you were more forceful…right? 

A: Absolutely.


The whistleblower was afraid and felt trapped.


When further explaining what it was like being subjected to workplace harassment one whistleblower made the following comment:


[[I was] fearful to cross him…fearful of the retaliation…at this point, okay, he’s the Chief of staff, he’s in a position of power. Who is going to believe me?]


The whistleblower’s words say it all. The whistleblower was afraid and felt trapped.


Yet, Ms. Grosso, and every senior leader who was aware of these allegations did nothing. They turned their backs. They failed to act.


I will repeat my previous comments that as a father of daughters, this blatant dereliction of duty makes me sick.


Further, V.A. has so far failed to fully comply with the subpoena this Committee approved by a vote of 22 to 1.


Until V.A. stops defying Congressional authority,


We won’t know exactly which senior leaders knew about these allegations, when they knew it, and why they failed to act.


I want you all to read this quote from one of the whistleblowers.


[HR&A took a blind eye. They turned their head because of these relationships that they had with each other. Things were allowed to be done that shouldn't have been done. They all knew each other either in the military, the Army, or the Pentagon. Gina Grosso, Mr. Mayo, and Harvey Johnson all worked together at the Pentagon. So they had this friendship, this alliance. So even if you complained, they weren't going to do anything.


This is the environment that drove the whistleblowers to this Committee for help.


This is the environment that our veterans are being served by.


The very office that is supposed to stop sexual harassment was full of sexual harassment.


I want you to read one final quote from one of the whistleblowers. 


[“I never thought that all these years even in the military, I've seen a lot. I've never been in this situation myself. It's always things happening to other people. I never thought I'll be in the hot seat.”


Every level of V.A. failed these whistleblowers.


As long as I am Chairman, this Committee WILL NOT fail them.


I am disappointed that Ms. Grosso and Mr. Johnson have failed to testify today and provide their side of the story.


I am disappointed that V.A. yet again substituted their judgment for mine, and did not send all the witnesses I invited to appear today.  


This administration can ignore these whistleblowers, partially ignore our subpoenas, send people here to testify who just got on the job less than four weeks ago, and try to hide and protect those who know what happened.


But we will find the truth.


No matter how long it takes.


We are going to continue to demand answers from the department and pursue this investigation as far as it goes.


I appreciate the documents V.A. provided to the committee, but I fear there are too many questions that will remain unanswered after today’s hearing.


One of the documents that was provided to us did, however, expose some serious allegations that will be addressed.


On the screen you will see an email from Ms. Grosso to Secretary McDonough on October 29th stating she was sorry for not meeting the “appropriate standard” and thanking him for allowing her to have a gracious departure from V.A.


I hope the Secretary can explain what she meant by that and why she was thanking him for her “gracious” departure.


Emails over the next few days show that the Secretary was working to provide a soft landing for Ms. Grosso.


He even offered to “to be very disciplined in how I talk about this and how other senior leaders talk about your service at V.A.”


I hope the Secretary has a good explanation for why Ms. Grosso announced her resignation the day after I called him about these accusations.


But I imagine he will be very disciplined.


This type of behavior by senior leaders is in sharp contrast to the Secretary’s annual statements to V.A.’s workforce where he has encouraged employees to come forward if they see or hear about harassment.


Review this one from last year where the Secretary states that when sexual harassment is ignored it can encourage “such conduct to continue.”


This seems very appropriate for the situation he now appears to find himself in.


Secretary McDonough is going to tell this Committee that he has “no independent recollection” of these sexual harassment allegations until I raised them with him on November 13th.


If that is the truth, it is a sorry excuse.


Why did he not take action to protect these brave whistleblowers sooner?


If he really does not remember learning about these allegations, then is there someone on his staff who does?


And if they do, why are they still on his staff?


Why does it appear that he was more interested in Ms. Grosso’s future than the safety of his own employees?


Why did he and other V.A. officials only move the accused senior leaders to different positions, pending investigations, until the day after I made the allegations public? 


Why does the Secretary and V.A. say that they do not tolerate sexual harassment when the evidence we have says the opposite?


To put it simply, Secretary McDonough owes this Committee answers to the following basic questions…


What did he know?

When did he know it? and

Why on earth did he or anyone on his senior leadership team not act sooner?


It is good that Secretary McDonough is here to answer these and other serious questions about his conduct.


However, if the goal is to be transparent and build trust with this Committee,


We shouldn’t have received his testimony last night filled with lawyerly phrases like “no independent recollection”.


The questions I have are not political in nature.


They are questions about one’s judgment, morals, and their duty to do the right thing when no one is looking.


That is what it means to be a leader.


Nothing more, nothing less.


That is the level of trust that veterans expect from him.


I also have questions about when other senior leaders at V.A. knew about these allegations and why the entire chain-of-command did nothing to stop them.


If the Secretary does not remember reading these allegations, I hope someone does.


This is an important question outside of the Secretary’s testimony,


Because well after he is gone, after I am gone, after every one of us is gone, we must ensure our legacy is that:


No one who tolerates sexual harassment should be serving our veterans – PERIOD.


I was planning on holding a business meeting after this hearing to consider a subpoena resolution.


The resolution would require senior V.A. leaders included in the Committee’s O.R.M.D.I. investigation to appear for transcribed interviews with the Committee.


In November and December, I wrote to the Secretary to request these interviews.


After stonewalling for a while, V.A. asked that I wait until their internal investigation was complete,


I agreed because V.A. committed to two important things.


First, to send me the results of the investigation,


and second, that after I reviewed the report, I could decide if I wanted to move forward with interviews.


As I said before, serious questions still remain about when senior leaders knew about these allegations and what they did about them.


So, I repeated my request for transcribed interviews for a third time.


I appreciate that the Secretary, through one of his lawyers, informed me yesterday afternoon that he would make V.A. officials available for interview with the Committee.


It is disappointing that this took multiple letters and months of waiting.


Nevertheless, this is a positive step.


However, Mr. Secretary, your staff has NOT specifically agreed to any of the individuals I requested by name.


Until you do so, I remain skeptical.


The Department does not get to pick and choose when they comply with Congressional oversight – full stop.


With that, I now recognize Ranking Member Takano for his opening comments.
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