An Inspector General has put some VA officials, including VA Secretary David Shulkin, in hot water.
The VA IG looked into the Secretary’s trip to attend the Ministerial Summit on Veterans’ Affairs in London after receiving an anonymous tip that it was a misuse of funds because it contained a significant amount of personal time.
Among those on the trip were Shulkin and his wife, Dr. Merle Bari, along with VA Chief of Staff Vivieca Wright Simpson; then Acting Under Secretary for Health Dr. Poonam Alaigh; and Program Specialist James (Gabe) Gough.
Ironically, less than two weeks before the start of the trip, Shulkin issued a memo to all VA staff titled, Essential Employee Travel, instructing staff that before approving any employee travel, managers must determine whether the travel is “essential” in order to decrease “employee travel and generate savings” within VA.
In reviewing the details of the trip, which cost taxpayers $122,334, the IG found that Chief of Staff Wright Simpson made false representations to a VA ethics official and altered an official record to get the VA to pay for Bari’s air travel. VA ethics officials initially declined to approve Bari as an “invitational traveler,” so Wright Simpson got involved and falsely stated that Shulkin would be receiving an award while in Denmark, according to the IG report.
The IG said it found no evidence that Shulkin was aware of Wright Simpson’s actions which led to the VA paying more than $4,000 for Bari’s airline ticket.
Shulkin and Bari also attended a Wimbledon tennis match while on the trip, and the IG report says that Shulkin improperly accepted the tickets. The report says that they were accepted on the terms that they met the “personal friendship” exception under ethics rules, however, when interviewed by the IG, the woman who provided them could not remember the name of Shulkin’s wife. The IG said it ultimately concluded that the information it obtained was “insufficient to accurately describe his [Shulkin] or his wife’s relationship with Ms. Gosling [the provider of the tickets].”
Other problems the IG report cited with the trip included directing misuse of a subordinate’s official time and false statements made by the VA to the media about the trip.
In the former case, Shulkin directed a VA Program Specialist to plan personal activities on the trip. “The OIG was unable to determine the total amount of official time Mr. Gough [VA Program Specialist] spent planning these personal activities at the direction of Secretary Shulkin and Dr. Bari. However, it was clear from the extensive communications between Mr. Gough and Dr. Bari that he spent many hours attending to the personal aspects of the trip on their behalf that exceeded what was required to notify the security detail of their proposed movements,” said the report.
The IG report also said that the VA made misleading statements to media inquiries about the trip. One instance cited in the report was when Shulkin was interviewed at a public forum by a Washington Post reporter on November 9, 2017, he said he paid for the Wimbledon tickets and that they were not a gift from “folks from the Invictus Games or anything like that,” a statement which the report says was “not accurate.”
The IG had five recommendations for the VA in its report.
- Secretary Shulkin should reimburse the VA for his wife’s airfare
- Secretary Shulkin should reimburse Ms. Gosling for the cost of the Wimbledon tickets and any other tangible benefits, and if she does not accept reimbursement, that he pay the same amount into the US Treasury
- The VA should take any appropriate administrative action against Ms. Wright Simpson and other individuals concerning the Europe trip
- The VA should audit the expense vouchers, travel authorizations, and the time and attendance records for all travelers and take any appropriate action to correct any errors
- The VA should assess and enhance its training relating to the topics of travel planning, approvals, and the solicitation or acceptance of gifts
One lawmaker has already called for Shulkin to resign over the report. Congressman Mike Coffman (R-CO) posted the following tweet:
It’s exactly corruption and abuses like this that doesn’t help our veterans. @SecShulkin must RESIGN now. @realDonaldTrump ran on accountability, it starts here. VA chief Shulkin, staff misled ethics officials about Eurotrip, report – The Washington Post https://t.co/hJ3slooxQr
— Rep. Mike Coffman (@RepMikeCoffman) February 14, 2018
Shulkin told USA Today that he regrets the situation but said “there was never anything intentional.”
“We act with the highest ethical character. I relied upon my staff to do this, and in retrospect, I wish that I had asked more questions,” said Shulkin.
He also said in the interview he has taken action to pay back the money for his wife’s plane ticket and the tennis tickets per the recommendations in the IG report.
Reports like this can lead to fallout for the individuals involved. Last year, a similar kind of situation led then Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to resign over criticism surrounding his frequent use of private charter flights for government travel. The trips reportedly cost over $400,000. (See Tom Price Resigns as HHS Secretary)
Shulkin faced questioning from lawmakers at a morning hearing on Thursday over the report. House Committee on Veterans Affairs Chairman Phil Roe (R-TN) said the Committee was “disappointed” by the report and urged Shulkin to comply with the IG’s recommendations. Shulkin said the annual conference did qualify as essential travel, but added, “I do recognize the optics of this are not good.”
Shulkin also said Thursday that he has no intention of resigning over the report. He also recently told the New York Times that he believes Trump political appointees are working against him, saying that they were “trying to undermine the department from within.”
The VA announced on Friday that Chief of Staff Vivieca Wright Simpson has elected to retire following the release of the IG report. The VA has also opened a formal investigation into her actions identified in the IG report.