Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie fired his second-in-command, James Byrne, on Monday amid controversy over Wilkie's and Byrne's handling of a sexual assault allegation by a House staffer arising from her medical visit to the VA Medical Center in Washington.
Wilkie provided no details on why he ousted Byrne as deputy secretary. "Today, I dismissed VA Deputy Secretary James Byrne due to loss of confidence in Mr. Byrne's ability to carry out his duties," Wilkie said in a written statement. "This decision is effective immediately."
Byrne, a former Marine officer, had served since last September after being confirmed by the Senate. He previously had served as acting VA secretary and as VA general counsel.
Congressional Republican and Democratic leaders on veterans issues issued statements of confidence in Wilkie's leadership.
"There is no question that this is a critical time for the VA and that Secretary Wilkie must have a leadership team that he can trust supporting him as he works to transform the VA and better serve veterans and their families," said Rep. Phil Roe, the ranking Republican on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee.
"I have confidence in Secretary Wilkie's judgment," said Sen. Jon Tester, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.
There is widespread concern about maintaining leadership continuity at the VA given the multiple secretaries and top officials who were replaced during the Obama and Trump administrations. The agency is in the middle of implementing the Mission Act's ambitious Community Care program expanding the number of veterans who can receive healthcare services from private providers outside the VA system.
A spokeswoman for Wilkie denied that the firing was related to the handling of the sexual assault allegations by Andrea Goldstein, a staffer for the House Veterans' Affairs Committee and a Navy veteran.
Both Wilkie and Byrne, however, have been implicated in that controversy.
Goldstein posted an article Monday blasting Wilkie shortly before the secretary announced Byrne's firing. She described being sexually harassed and assaulted at the VA hospital last September and reporting the incident to three VA employees, who she said did nothing. Her VA physician finally called the VA police and the VA's Office of Inspector General and the U.S. attorney's office opened an investigation.
Wilkie subsequently wrote a letter to Goldstein's boss, Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), chairman of the House VA Committee. In that letter, Wilkie said "the unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff could deter our Veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve."
Last month, VA Inspector General Michael Missal wrote a letter to Wilkie refuting the secretary's statement that Goldstein's allegations were unsubstantiated and calling Wilkie's characterizations of the incident "inaccurate."
Byrne reportedly had been briefed about the investigation of Goldstein's allegations by the inspector general's office.
Takano raised questions about the impact of Byrne's firing on services for veterans.
"Deputy Secretary Byrne was confirmed by the Senate—the American people deserve to know why he was dismissed," Takano said in a written statement. "As Chairman of this Committee, it is my duty to ensure veterans receive timely access to care and benefits without delay, and I want to make sure this personnel decision will not impact that commitment."
The Veterans Community Care program, mandated by the VA Mission Act enacted in 2018, started in June. Under the law, the VA is consolidating seven existing programs that pay for veterans' care outside the VA system, including Veterans Choice, into one. The law was designed to remedy long waits for care and payment under Choice, which itself was created by Congress to address excessive waits for care.
Veterans are eligible for community care if they must drive 30 minutes or more to a VA facility for primary care or mental health services, or 60 minutes or more for specialty care. They're also eligible for private care if they have to wait 20 days or more for primary care or mental healthcare, or 28 days or more for specialty care.