VA head mixed busi­ness, leisure

Tax­pay­ers covered wife’s ex­penses, too, dur­ing trip to Europe

The Dallas Morning News - - Nation -

WASH­ING­TON — Nearly three days into a trip to Europe in July, Vet­er­ans Af­fairs Sec­re­tary David Shulkin had at­tended a Wim­ble­don cham­pi­onship ten­nis match, toured West­min­ster Abbey and taken a cruise on the Thames.

The 10-day trip was not en­tirely a va­ca­tion. Shulkin was in Europe for meet­ings with Dan­ish and Bri­tish of­fi­cials about vet­er­ans’ health is­sues, so tax­pay­ers picked up part of the tab.

Yet he and his wife spent about half their time sight­see­ing, in­clud­ing shop­ping and tour­ing his­toric sites, ac­cord­ing to an itin­er­ary ob­tained by The

Wash­ing­ton Post and con­firmed by a U.S. of­fi­cial fa­mil­iar with their ac­tiv­i­ties.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment paid for the flights for Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari, and pro­vided a per-diem re­im­burse­ment for their meals and other ex­penses, the Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion said Fri­day. An agency spokesman did not re­spond to ques­tions about why Bari qual­i­fied for the re­im­burse­ments and tax­payer-funded air­fare, other than to say she was trav­el­ing on “ap­proved in­vi­ta­tional or­ders” and had “tem­po­rary duty” travel ex­penses.

The agency also did not re­spond to ques­tions about the cost of the flights and the to­tal re­im­burse­ment. If Bari took the full per diem ev­ery day of the trip, she could have been re­im­bursed as much as $3,600 un­der fed­eral guide­lines.

Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion Cab­i­net mem­bers have faced mount­ing scru­tiny over their use of pri­vate and gov­ern­ment jets in re­cent days, and Health and Hu­man Ser­vices Sec­re­tary Tom Price re­signed Fri­day amid crit­i­cism of his use of tax­payer­funded char­ter flights. Shulkin trav­eled on a com­mer­cial flight, though, and he was seated in coach on at least one leg.

The Euro­pean visit, how­ever, puts a fo­cus on the mix­ing of busi­ness and leisure dur­ing these trips, which can come at con­sid­er­able tax­payer ex­pense. Shulkin’s im­me­di­ate pre­de­ces­sor, Robert Mc­Don­ald, took no for­eign work trips, ac­cord­ing to a former VA of­fi­cial who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

Shulkin’s six-per­son trav­el­ing party in­cluded his act­ing un­der­sec­re­tary of health and her hus­band, Shulkin’s chief of staff and an­other aide, the itin­er­ary says. They were ac­com­pa­nied by a se­cu­rity de­tail of as many as six peo­ple.

Shulkin’s trip came less than two weeks af­ter he signed a memo in­struct­ing top VA staffers to de­ter­mine whether “em­ployee travel in their or­ga­ni­za­tion is es­sen­tial.”

“I ex­pect this will re­sult in de­creased em­ployee travel and gen­er­ate sav­ings within the De­part­ment of Vet­er­ans Af­fairs,” Shulkin wrote.

In re­sponse to ques­tions from The Post, the VA an­nounced Fri­day that the agency would be­gin post­ing de­tails of the sec­re­tary’s travel on­line, in­clud­ing itin­er­ar­ies, and dis­clos­ing any use of gov­ern­ment or pri­vate air­craft. That in­for­ma­tion had not pre­vi­ously been dis­closed pub­licly. All of Shulkin’s ac­tiv­i­ties on the Euro­pean trip, in­clud­ing his at­ten­dance at Wim­ble­don, “were re­viewed and ap­proved by ethics coun­sel,” VA press sec­re­tary Curt Cashour said in an emailed state­ment.

“These were im­por­tant trips with our al­lies to dis­cuss best prac­tices for tak­ing care of vet­er­ans,” Cashour said. “The sec­re­tary has been trans­par­ent on his down-time ac­tiv­i­ties that were sim­i­lar to what he would have done with his fam­ily over a week­end in the U.S.”

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