VA Diversity Officer Was Ordered Not To Condemn White Nationalism

The head of diversity and inclusion at the Department of Veterans Affairs wanted a stronger response from the agency to the violence in Charlottesville, emails show.

A sign reading "resist hate" stands among the crowd standing in front of the U.S. Capitol building.
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The head of diversity and inclusion at the Department of Veterans Affairs wanted a stronger response from the agency to the violence in Charlottesville, emails show.

Emails between officials in the Department of Veterans Affairs demonstrate a vast difference of opinion when it came to how to respond to the deadly acts of violence that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.

The emails were obtained by American Oversight, the Washington Post reported, who were given copies of the email chain by the government watchdog group. The communications took place between several officials, but deal primarily with disagreements between Georgia Coffey, who was then the chief diversity officer at the VA, and John Ullyot, who still serves as the head of communications for the department.

Coffey believed it was necessary for the VA to put out a response condemning the violence in Charlottesville, specifically signaling that the government agency stood against the “repugnant display of hate and bigotry by white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the Ku Klux Klan,” Coffey wrote in her emails.

Coffey’s request for the VA to speak out was due in part to the fact that the department is among the most diverse in the federal government, with around 40 percent of its employees being minority workers. Coffey also wanted a response that would assure workers that the White House was dedicated toward diversity and inclusion following controversial remarks from President Donald Trump about there being responsibility from “many sides” for the violence at the Unite the Right rally in 2017.

Coffey, a nationally recognized expert on workplace inclusion and diversity, according reporting from the Hill, wanted a statement from the VA that would show the agency stood against the tenets of white nationalism and to recognize that the events in Charlottesville served “as a tragic reminder that our work in civil rights and inclusion is not finished.”

Others in the agency felt differently and told Coffey to back off of the issue. The White House was trying to handle matters, she was told in email responses, and any condemnation from the VA that contradicted their message would be inconsistent.

Ullyot specifically wanted to quell Coffey’s call for condemnation because, according to one source familiar with his actions at the time, he was enforcing a directive from the White House not to make public comment on behalf of the agency.

After a back-and-forth between Ullyot and Coffey came about, Ullyot ultimately told her that “we should all feel free to share our own personal views on the recent events.” Although Coffey still felt adamant about making a public statement on behalf of the VA, she ultimately settled for writing her opinion in the agency’s newsletter.

She was later reprimanded for the statement. She decided to quit the agency soon after, with some purporting her decision to do so was based on the agency heads’ decision not to speak out more vociferously on the matter.