‘Replete with Misconduct’: Internal VA Investigation Finds Inappropriate Sexual Conduct in VA’s Anti-Harassment Office

by Braxton Taylor

Supervisors in a Department of Veterans Affairs office in charge of promoting a harassment-free workplace had inappropriate sexual relationships with subordinates and failed to take action when presented with allegations of sexual harassment, according to an internal VA investigation into allegations of misconduct in the office.

While several allegations against supervisors in the Office of Resolution Management, Diversity and Inclusion, or ORMDI, were not substantiated, the Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection’s investigation into ORMDI still found “an office replete with misconduct.”

“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 investigation said.

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The 125-page investigative report was released by the VA on Wednesday morning ahead of a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing about the allegations of sexual harassment and other misconduct within ORMDI and the committee’s own investigation into the allegations.

At the hearing, Republicans stepped up their accusations, including suggesting VA Secretary Denis McDonough helped shield the allegations against ORMDI from public and congressional scrutiny.

McDonough forcefully denied that he knew about the allegations earlier than he told the committee he was aware of them, but took responsibility for failing to notice when the committee first brought the allegations to him in a September letter.

“I’m responsible for everything that happens at VA,” McDonough testified. “The person who failed here is me.”

McDonough also stressed that he takes allegations of sexual harassment seriously.

“One of the employees quoted in that report said she felt alone,” McDonough told reporters after his testimony. “I don’t want our employees to feel alone. I don’t want our employees to feel unheard. And I want them to know that I see them, that I hear them, that we care about them and that we’re going to do everything we can to ensure they have a safe workplace.”

“But I also said in there that I might fall short. And when I do, I want to make sure that I own that,” he said.

The Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection, or OAWP, substantiated allegations that Archie Davis, who was ORMDI’s chief of staff until he was reassigned during the investigation, sent an employee sexually explicit text messages, including ones that described wanting to perform oral sex on her and saying he was attracted to her “curves.”

She repeatedly told Davis she was not interested in anything more than friendship, but he continued to send her sexually explicit messages, according to the report. Investigators concluded that she reasonably felt intimidated and feared professional retaliation based on his position as her supervisor and reputation for aggressive behavior in the workplace.

Investigators also found Davis and another employee mutually flirted and sent each other sexually explicit text messages. Even though the exchanges were consensual in that case, the conduct was still inappropriate since Davis was a leader in the office, the report said.

Davis also failed to take action when sexual harassment allegations against another supervisor in the office, Gary Richardson, were brought to his attention, according to the report.

“OAWP concluded that Respondent Davis’ misconduct contributed to a hostile, toxic, and unprofessional work environment,” the report said. “As detailed in this report, Respondent Davis engaged in behavior that was both inappropriate and of the very kind that ORMDI is charged with preventing.”

Investigators also substantiated that Richardson sent messages to an employee that “could have reasonably been perceived by [the employee] as sexual in nature and unprofessional,” the report said. Those messages include telling the employee that he looked at her photo on Microsoft Teams to “get my fix” and telling her his wife can’t know they were talking, according to the report.

Davis’ supervisor, Harvey Johnson, was also guilty of misconduct for failing to supervise Davis, investigators concluded.

“Respondent Davis’ misconduct, as described above, 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,” the report said.

Despite that, Johnson continued to give Davis’ performance high ratings and gave him an overall assessment as an “outstanding” employee, according to the report.

Jeffrey Mayo, the VA’s principal deputy assistant secretary for human resources, also failed to take action when notified of the allegations against Davis, the report said. Another supervisor, whose name is redacted in the released report, also failed to take action when notified of the allegations against Richardson, the report added.

Despite those findings, investigators did not substantiate several other allegations against ORMDI leaders, including that incentive awards were denied in retaliation for turning down sexual advances, that whistleblowers were retaliated against, that someone engaged in nepotism and that several other supervisors engaged in sexual harassment and other sexually inappropriate conduct, the report said.

OAWP recommended disciplinary action against several ORMDI officials, including firing and recouping bonuses from one supervisor who engaged in a variety of misconduct and created a toxic work environment; recouping bonuses from a supervisor who already retired who failed to supervise one of the people guilty of misconduct; suspending a supervisor who engaged in sexual misconduct; and suspending a supervisor who failed to take action after finding out about sexual harassment allegations.

All the names are redacted in the portion of the report recommending disciplinary action.

VA officials have already moved to start the firing process for one person at ORMDI, according to Cassandra Law, assistant secretary for human resources, who testified Wednesday but did not name who is being fired. Other disciplinary actions, including recouping bonuses, will happen by the end of the month, she added.

Department officials are also writing an anti-fraternization policy to address romantic or sexual relationships in the workplace, Law and McDonough both testified. The OAWP investigation found that no such policy existed.

Wednesday’s hearing came after the committee subpoenaed the VA for a stack of documents related to the allegations of sexual harassment at ORMDI. The vote to issue the subpoena was bipartisan, with only committee ranking member Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., voting against the subpoena.

But on Wednesday, Democrats accused Republicans of inflating the issues within ORMDI for political purposes, pointing to the unsubstantiated allegations in OAWP’s report.

“It seems to me that as the majority has carried out the investigation, I think they have tried to perhaps paint a picture and paint themselves as a party for women,” said Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif. “Their voting records and actions paint a different story.”

While Brownley originally supported the subpoena because she “trusted that the truth was being presented,” she said she now feels “that I was misled and that we were all misled.”

Republicans, though, said the internal investigation showed issues at ORMDI were worse than they thought and vowed to press ahead with their own investigation.

“The findings of the report are damning, disturbing and frankly despicable,” said committee Chairman Mike Bost, R-Ill. “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.”

Related: Whistleblowers Say VA Managers Made Lewd Sexual Advances. Now, the Agency Has Been Subpoenaed by Congress.

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