Up & Coming Weekly

December 22, 2020

Up and Coming Weekly is a weekly publication in Fayetteville, NC and Fort Bragg, NC area offering local news, views, arts, entertainment and community event and business information.

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10 UCW DECEMBER 23-29, 2020 WWW.UPANDCOMINGWEEKLY.COM NEWS Veterans groups call for firing of VA Secretary Wilkie over investigation of sexual assault allegation by JEFF THOMPSON Legislative leaders, governor announce deal on rural broadband funding by JOHN TRUMP Several major veterans' organizations have called for the immediate firing of Veterans Affairs Secre- tary Robert Wilkie, citing a lack of confidence in his leadership. e Veterans Affairs Inspector General blasted Wilkie for his handling of a sexual assault allegation at a VA hospital. "Secretary Wilkie and several members of his executive staff violated the trust of a fellow veteran who came forth with serious allegations of sexual assault," said Veterans of Foreign Wars Executive Di- rector B.J. Lawrence in a statement. "Instead of tak- ing this veteran's allegations seriously, the Secretary and his key staff sought to discredit and vilify the veteran. We will not tolerate this behavior at our VA." VFW's statement followed similar remarks from Disabled American Veterans, Paralyzed Veterans of America, AMVETS, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, Minority Veterans of America, the NYC Veterans Alliance and the Modern Military Associa- tion of America. Officials from the Service Women's Action Network issued a statement saying that senior leaders in the department "cannot be relied upon to provide safe, welcoming medical care to our women veterans." Robert Wilkie is a North Carolina native. He grew up in Fayetteville and graduated from Reid Ross High School and Wake Forest University. At issue is Wilkie's response to allegations in September 2019 from a House of Representatives staffer, Navy reserv- ist Andrea Goldstein. She alleged she was assaulted and verbally abused by a man in a public area of the Washington D.C. VA medical center while she was visiting the hospital. Wilkie promised a full, independent investiga- tion into the allegations. However, the IG report said he and other senior leaders instead worked to discredit Goldstein, looking into her background and spreading rumors about her honesty. At least three members of Congress also called for Wilkie's resignation following the Inspector General report, including House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chair- man Mark Takano, D-Calif., who said that actions of senior department leaders "betray the public trust and as a result disqualify [them] from all future public service." One of the most damning revelations in the report was that VA police ran a background check on Goldstein two days before running one on a suspect she had identified as her attacker. at man (not identified in the report) had prior sexual harass- ment claims filed against him, but ultimately was not charged with any crimes. Wilkie accused both Takano and the Inspector General of politicizing the issue, and of searching for ways to smear VA leader- ship despite finding no evidence of a crime. "e unconscionable details laid out in this report are just another sign of the pervasive culture that allows for sexual assault and harassment, as well as retaliation against those who raise these issues, to continue within the VA," said Carl Blake, execu- tive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, in a statement. "ey must be addressed in order to effect systemic change. We call on the President of the United States to fire Secretary Robert Wilkie if he doesn't resign. Additionally, the senior leaders who enabled this to happen and allowed this culture to fester should be held accountable." JEFF THOMPSON, Reporter. COMMENTS? Editor@upandcom- ingweekly.com. 910-484-6200. Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technolo- gy, or GREAT, provides matching grants to internet service providers and electric membership coopera- tives to provide broadband in poorer or rural areas. Leaders in the General Assembly and the governor say they have reached a deal to ensure $30 million for the GREAT rural broad- band program. GREAT is an acronym for Growing Rural Economies with Access to Technology, which provides matching grants to internet service providers and electric membership coopera- tives to provide broadband in poorer or rural areas. e issue of broadband funding became a point of confusion last month after a group of lawmakers wrote Gov. Roy Cooper asking why he seemed to have pulled $30 million in fund- ing for the broadband grant program. Part of the confusion came over federal rules regard- ing deadlines for spending the money. Unused COVID relief funds for rural broad- band will replace $30 million in eligible expenses already incurred using General Fund dollars, a news release from General Assembly leaders says. e legislature will vote on a bill early next year to redirect the $30 million in freed up General Fund dollars to the GREAT program. "Expanding access to rural broadband is a shared priority, and I'm glad we could suc- cessfully resolve this issue," Senate Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said in a news release. Said House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleve- land, "Rural broadband remains a top prior- ity of this General Assembly, and our state is fortunate to have continued revenue availabil- ity to meet this need and make flexible budget adjustments as federal rules may require." In September, the legislature passed, and Cooper signed, legislation to allocate $30 million in federal CARES Act relief funding to North Carolina's GREAT program, which provides grants to expand rural broadband access. U.S. Treasury guidance jeopardized the eligibility of the funding because of questions about whether the CARES Act-funded rural broadband projects must be complete before a Dec. 30 deadline, the news release said. To avoid potential issues associated with the risk of ineligibility, the legislative and execu- tive branch successfully negotiated a solution, lawmakers say. e executive branch will use the flexibility afforded by state law to redirect the $30 mil- lion previously allocated to the GREAT pro- gram to other eligible expenses for which state General Fund dollars would have been used. e legislature will then vote on a bill early next year to appropriate the newly freed up $30 million from the General Fund to the GREAT program. Until the legislature formally appropriates the $30 million early next year, the Office of State Budget and Management will proceed with the administrative process of reviewing grant applications from providers and prepar- ing contracts, the release says. at process generally takes several weeks anyway, so the time delay in awarding broadband grants un- der this new plan will be negligible. Robert Wilke, Secretary of Veterans Affairs JOHN TRUMP, Carolina Journal News Service. COMMENTS? editor@upandcomin- gweekly.com. 910-484-6200.

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