Watch­dog’s re­port faults VA chief over Europe trip ex­penses

Tax­payer-funded air­fare for wife to be paid back.

Dayton Daily News - - NATION & WORLD - By Hope Yen

Veter­ans WASHINGTON — Af­fairs Sec­re­tary David Shulkin im­prop­erly ac­cepted Wim­ble­don ten­nis tick­ets and his staff lied that he was get­ting an award in or­der to jus­tify his wife ac­com­pa­ny­ing him at tax­payer ex­pense on an 11-day Euro­pean trip that mixed busi­ness and sight­see­ing, ac­cord­ing to a blis­ter­ing govern­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­leased Wed­nes­day.

The 87-page re­port by the VA’s in­ter­nal watch­dog said Shulkin should re­im­burse the govern­ment more than $4,000 for his wife’s air­fare and ac­cused his top aide of doc­tor­ing emails to falsely rep­re­sent that Shulkin as be­ing hon­ored in Den­mark, in­vent­ing a ra­tio­nale for his wife’s free travel.

“The in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed se­ri­ous dere­lic­tions” by Shulkin and his staff, said the re­port, which cited “poor judg­ment and/ or mis­con­duct.”

The find­ings are the lat­est in a se­ries of con­tro­ver­sies in­volv­ing ex­pen­sive or waste­ful plane travel by top Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials. Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s health sec­re­tary, Tom Price, re­signed in Septem­ber af­ter ques­tions arose about his use of pri­vate jets for mul­ti­ple govern­ment trips.

Top law­mak­ers on the con­gres­sional over­sight com­mit­tees urged Shulkin, a for­mer VA un­der­sec­re­tary of health who served in the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, to fully ad­dress the find­ings. They stressed in a joint state­ment that “whether in­ten­tional or not, mis­us­ing tax­payer dol­lars is un­ac­cept­able.”

Rep. Mike Coff­man, R-Colo., a mem­ber of the House Veter­ans’ Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, called on Shulkin to re­sign and said “it is time to clean house at the VA.”

In a re­sponse at­tached to the re­port, Shulkin said he did noth­ing im­proper and he at­tacked the in­ves­ti­ga­tion as con­tain­ing the “thread of bias.”

“A re­port of this na­ture is a di­rect as­sault on my spouse, my char­ac­ter, and my un­blem­ished record of ser­vice to the Veter­ans Af­fairs Ad­min­is­tra­tion,” he wrote.

Shulkin said he will con­sult with the agency’s gen­eral coun­sel and re­im­burse the costs for his wife’s air­fare and the Wim­ble­don tick­ets if ad­vised to do so.

Shulkin’s over­seas trip may have in­volved too much leisure time at tax­pay­ers’ ex­pense, ac­cord­ing to the re­port by the VA’s in­spec­tor gen­eral, Michael Missal. It found that VA ethics of­fi­cials should not have ap­proved the com­mer­cial air­fare for Shulkin’s wife, Merle Bari, and they did so only af­ter Shulkin’s chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simp­son, al­tered emails to make it ap­pear he was re­ceiv­ing an award to jus­tify his wife’s trav­el­ing on the pub­lic’s dime.

The in­spec­tor gen­eral said that “since Ms. Wright Simp­son’s false rep­re­sen­ta­tions and al­ter­ation of an of­fi­cial record may have vi­o­lated fed­eral crim­i­nal statutes,” it re­ferred the mat­ter to the Jus­tice Depart­ment, which de­cided not to pros­e­cute.

The re­port called on the VA to take “ap­pro­pri­ate ad­min­is­tra­tive ac­tion” against Wright Simp­son, and the agency said it was re­view­ing the mat­ter. A VA spokesman, Curt Cashour, did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to re­quests for com­ment from Wright Simp­son.

The au­dit by VA in­spec­tor gen­eral Michael Missal also ques­tioned Shulkin’s de­ci­sion to use agency staff on of­fi­cial time to ar­range his per­sonal sight­see­ing ac­tiv­i­ties.

An 11-mem­ber VA del­e­ga­tion, in­clud­ing Bari and six mem­bers of Shulkin’s se­cu­rity de­tail, trav­eled to Eng­land and Den­mark last July, at a to­tal VA cost of at least $122,334, ac­cord­ing to the re­port. The trip in­cluded a tour of West­min­ster Abbey, at­ten­dance at the women’s fi­nal at Wim­ble­don featuring Amer­i­can Venus Wil­liams and a cruise on the Thames River.

Missal called on Shulkin to re­im­burse $4,312 paid by the Depart­ment of Veter­ans Af­fairs for Bari’s travel costs as well as the price of the Wim­ble­don tick­ets. He re­ceived the seats as a gift from a pro­fes­sional ac­quain­tance, Vic­to­ria Gosling, a for­mer CEO of the 2016 In­vic­tus Games, and then mis­rep­re­sented to the news me­dia that the gift had been preap­proved by ethics coun­sel. In fact, his ac­cep­tance of Wim­ble­don tick­ets had not been re­viewed.

The in­spec­tor gen­eral be­gan a re­view in Oc­to­ber af­ter The Washington Post re­ported that Shulkin and his wife had spent nearly half their time on per­sonal ac­tiv­i­ties dur­ing the Euro­pean trip.

David Shulkin

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