Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets and airfare for his wife during a European trip last summer that ultimately cost taxpayers more than $122,000, according to a VA inspector general report released Wednesday.
His chief of staff, Viveca Wright Simpson, made false representations to a VA ethics lawyer and altered an official email to secure approval for taxpayer funding of Shulkin’s wife’s flights, which cost more than $4,000, the VA inspector general found.
Shulkin told ethics officials the tennis tickets were provided by a personal friend, Victoria Gosling, an adviser for the Invictus Games, a sporting event for wounded warriors. But the inspector general concluded that was not the case: they had only met three times at official events, and when interviewed by investigators, Gosling couldn’t remember his wife’s name.
The inspector general also found the excursion led to a “misuse of VA resources.” Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari, took the trip with three other VA executives and a six-member security detail ostensibly to attend meetings in Denmark and a summit on veterans’ issues in London.
But nearly half the 10-day trip last July was spent sightseeing, and Shulkin directed an aide beforehand to plan the leisure activities with his wife. The aide made “extensive use of official time” to make the arrangements, investigators found.
“This was time that should have been spent conducting official VA business and not providing personal travel concierge services to Secretary Shulkin and his wife,” Inspector General Michael Missal wrote.
He recommended that the secretary reimburse the VA for her airfare and Gosling for the Wimbledon tickets and take disciplinary action against his chief of staff. He also urged that VA audit the trip and improve training on travel planning and ethics regulations surrounding improper gifts.
In a letter to Missal, Shulkin said the report ignores key evidence and “draws conclusions based on subjective and arbitrary criteria.” He said he had nothing to do with securing approval for his wife’s airfare, and the Wimbledon tickets were not a prohibited gift because Gosling had no business before the VA.
“It is outrageous that you would portray my wife and me as attempting to take advantage of the government,” Shulkin wrote.
But he said he would comply with the recommendations to reimburse the costs of the airfare and tickets.
Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate and House VA committees — who were briefed by Missal Wednesday morning — said in a joint statement that they are “disappointed” by the findings and urged Shulkin to “actively address” all of the allegations.
“We believe that public officials must be held to a higher standard, and whether intentional or not, misusing taxpayer dollars is unacceptable,” wrote Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., chairman and ranking member of the Senate committee and Reps. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Tim Walz, D-Minn., chairman and ranking member of the House committee.
“We are still reviewing the full report, but after our briefing from VA Inspector General Mike Missal, we are disappointed by the details described in the IG report regarding the trip taken by Dr. Shulkin and other VA officials, and we hope that the secretary will fully address the IG’s findings.”
Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman, a moderate Republican who has criticized Shulkin before, called for his resignation Wednesday within hours of the report’s release.
“It’s exactly corruption and abuses like this that doesn’t help our veterans,” Coffman tweeted. “@SecShulkin must RESIGN now. @realDonaldTrump ran on accountability, it starts here.”
Ethics experts back IG
Independent ethics specialists who reviewed the report and Shulkin’s response said the inspector general’s findings are sound. Meredith McGehee, executive director of nonpartisan nonprofit Issue One, said Gosling likely didn’t provide the tickets because Shulkin and Bari were friends.
“That just doesn’t pass the smell test as being a gift based on personal friendship,” she said, adding that seeking to build a relationship with the secretary of Veterans Affairs would have been the more logical reason.
Craig Holman, an ethics specialist with Public Citizen, noted Shulkin also didn’t seek ethics clearance to accept the tickets until months later, when a Washington Post story about the trip was imminent.
“And when the gift is so lavish as to consist of prime seats at Wimbledon and wining and dining, even if the gifts did come from a friend — which they did not — these gifts are subject to approval and fully reported, which Shulkin failed to do,” Holman said.
And spending so much time on leisure with no relation to government business also is questionable, McGehee said.
“It’s trips like these when you spend almost half the time sightseeing that undermines the public’s confidence that it is the public’s business that is being conducted here,” she said. “And that is very unfortunate.”
Shulkin is the only holdover from the Obama administration in President Trump’s Cabinet. He was previously undersecretary for health. He is one of several top appointees ensnared in travel problems.
Tom Price resigned as Health and Human Services secretary in September amid an outcry after he racked up at least $400,000 in charter flights on the public’s dime. The inspector general at the Department of the Interior dinged Secretary Ryan Zinke in November for incomplete documentation of his official travel, including trips with his wife.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin faced an inspector general investigation after he used government aircraft for several official trips that cost taxpayers at least $800,000. The Treasury IG, however, found in October that Mnuchin had not violated any laws with the travel. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt remains under investigation by that agency’s inspector general.
Source: Donovan Slack, USA TODAY
Photo Credit: Washington Times
Photo Credit: Veterans First LTD
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