After Charlottesville, Trump Appointee Silenced a Senior Veterans Affairs Official Who Denounced “Hate and Violence”

Another White House Appointee Told Official to Stand Down

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December 6, 2017 | Nick Schwellenbach
Veterans Affairs Assistant Secretary Peter Shelby
Peter Shelby, Assistant Secretary for Office of Human Resources & Administration at the Dept. of Veterans Affairs, rebuked a senior VA official for posting a newsletter online that criticized the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. (Photo: Veterans Affairs; Illustration by POGO)

A White House appointee at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) directed the removal of an official public statement critical of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has learned. The statement also expressed the VA’s commitment to anti-discrimination. Another Trump appointee rebuked the statement’s author, a high-level career official who headed the VA’s diversity office, and counseled her for posting the statement to the VA’s website. The episode prompted the official to leave her job shortly thereafter, sources said.

The case is the latest involving government materials being removed from government websites during the Trump administration. Critics contend the removal and revision of online materials is sometimes driven by politics and a desire to excise inconvenient information, such as the deletion from the Treasury Department’s website a Treasury analysis of how little workers benefit from corporate tax cuts. The Environmental Protection Agency scrubbed online references to climate change and removed resources for state, local, and tribal governments on how best to adapt to climate change.

It is considered a best transparency practice for agencies to provide notice when government information is removed from websites, and to provide an explanation for the removal and an estimated date for reposting.

Despite recent comments from VA Secretary David Shulkin stating that “under this Administration, VA is committed to becoming the most transparent organization in government,” the VA site has no notice that the official’s statement was removed or why. Contacted by POGO, the VA offered no comment.

After Charlottesville, the head of the diversity office, Deputy Assistant Secretary Georgia Coffey, drafted remarks addressing the situation for dissemination by Secretary Shulkin, according to sources, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation. Other agency heads and senior officials, such as Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, had spoken out on the matter.

In response to Coffey on an email chain that included Secretary Shulkin, John Ullyot, the VA’s top spokesman and a former Trump campaign official, directed Coffey to stand down and not to provide remarks for Shulkin to use. Sources told POGO that Shulkin took no action. However, employees at the VA—the government’s second largest agency, with more than 370,000 employees—were contacting Coffey to see whether the VA would comment on Charlottesville, multiple sources said. Because of VA employee interest, Coffey repurposed her draft remarks for Shulkin into the lead article under her name in the monthly newsletter issued by the VA’s diversity office.

After the September newsletter was posted online, Coffey’s direct boss—Assistant Secretary Peter Shelby, another Trump appointee—rebuked her in a verbal counseling for posting the newsletter and directed its removal in a mid-October meeting, according to sources. The newsletter was removed.

Currently, the VA’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion’s website has a newsletter for every single month since September 2012, except for September 2017. Prior to September 2012, newsletters came out every two months.

The VA would not explain why the newsletter was removed or comment on why Coffey left the VA. Charlottesville became a political firestorm earlier this year. President Trump faced severe criticism, including from within his party, over what many considered his failure to criticize Neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville where a woman protesting the white supremacist rally was killed by a car driven by a rally participant.

POGO obtained a copy of the September 2017 newsletter that was removed.

“This past month, we witnessed events that assaulted these defining values in America and dishonored those who fought and died to eradicate racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry in the world. The repugnant display of hate and violence by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan in Charlottesville serve as tragic reminders that our work in civil rights and inclusion is not finished,” wrote Coffey, who was appointed to the position during the George W. Bush administration.

Coffey left government service in November and took a similar position with Lockheed Martin, a top government contractor.

VA spokesman Curt Cashour did not respond to POGO’s request for comment.

Coffey also declined to comment to POGO. She told POGO she would “prefer to address this internally [through the government] rather than with media.”

POGO has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the VA for details about the newsletter’s removal.

Daniel Van Schooten and Adam Zagorin contributed to this report.

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