VA Secretary David Shulkin says taxpayers did not foot the bill for his sightseeing during a European trip. He also dismisses rumors that he is in the running to become the next HHS secretary.
WASHINGTON — Investigators determined 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’ affairs 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 and 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.
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.
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