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Department of Veterans Affairs under fire for sexual harassment inaction

The VA has only acted upon two of seven recommendations for improvement. Lawmakers are unhappy.

WASHINGTON — Sexual harassment continues to be a problem for the more than 412,000 employees at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

"Significant issues still prevent the Department of Veterans Affairs from effectively protecting its employees from sexual harassment," according to the Government Accountability Office.

In a new report published Thursday, the GAO said: "Without additional action, VA will likely continue to be among agencies with a high percentage of employees reporting being harassed."

"About 17%of VA employees say they have experienced sexual harassment, compared to 12% of other agencies," said Thomas Costa, a Director in the GAO's Education, Workforce, and Income Security team. 

The report said the VA continues to have the person who oversees personnel functions also oversee the employment discrimination and harassment complaint processes. The GAO said this can create a conflict of interest and erode employees' trust that sexual harassment complaints will be handled appropriately.

In 2020, the GAO made seven recommendations, but the VA has only implemented two of them.

Lawmakers at Thursday's House Veterans Affairs Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing were clearly unhappy.

"Victims often fear no one will believe them, no action will be taken, or that they'll be blamed or socially ostracized," said Rep. Chris Pappas (D-New Hampshire).

"VA's Inspector General Missile has called VA's leadership disengaged, and its culture dangerous," said Rep. Tracey Mann (R-Kansas).

"The lack of progress in fully addressing sexual harassment is disappointing. Equally important what I see is a lack of prioritization by VA leadership is disheartening," said Rep. Mark Takano (D-California).

"Survivors will continue to suffer without assurances that perpetrators of sexual harassment will be held accountable for their actions. This is wholly unacceptable, and it's time to fix it," said Rep. Julia Brownley (D-California).

The VA said it is trying.

Harvey Johnson, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Resolution Management, Diversity & Inclusion at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs told the panel the department is committed to creating an "inclusive and welcoming environment."

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