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New York Times / News - Politics

Report Faults V.A. Secretary Shulkin Over Travel to Europe

There were “serious derelictions” in a trip taken by David Shulkin, the secretary of veterans affairs, and his wife, an inspector general’s report said. Dr. Shulkin denied wrongdoing.


David Shulkin, the secretary of veterans affairs, at his confirmation hearing in 2017. Al Drago/The New York Times

A scathing report released Wednesday found “serious derelictions” in a 10-day, $122,000 business trip the secretary of veterans affairs took to Europe, which included airfare for his wife and extensive sightseeing.

According to the report, Secretary David J. Shulkin traveled to Denmark and London for meetings about health care for veterans, accompanied by his wife, a small staff and a six-person security detail, but nearly half of his time was spent visiting castles and other tourist sites.

“This was time that should have been spent conducting official V.A. business and not providing personal travel concierge services to Secretary Shulkin and his wife,” Inspector General Michael J. Missal concluded in the report.

To justify paying for the secretary’s wife’s $4,000 airfare, the report said, the department’s chief of staff altered an email to indicate that Dr. Shulkin and his wife had been specifically invited to an honorary dinner in Denmark, when in fact they had not.

While the couple were in London, the report found, they improperly accepted tickets to a tennis match at Wimbledon.

Dr. Shulkin is one of several cabinet secretaries to be accused of lavish spending on travel. Tom Price was dismissed as secretary of health and human services over his use of private jets.

Within hours of the report’s release, a few Republican lawmakers were calling for Dr. Shulkin to resign. But others in Congress and at influential veterans’ organizations stopped short of that, condemning misuse of funds but reaffirming their support for the secretary.

“A lot of them don’t know what to do — they may want him to go, but who would replace him?” said Paul Rieckhoff, founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “What they get in his place may be very disruptive.”

The Department of Veterans Affairs offered only a brief defense of Dr. Shulkin’s trip on Wednesday, saying in a statement: “As Secretary Shulkin points out, he travels far less than any recent V.A. secretary, takes no private jets, and was the first cabinet secretary to post details of his travel online for all to see. That said, accountability and transparency are important values at V.A. under President Trump.”

But Dr. Shulkin personally pushed back hard against the findings.

“The report is not accurate, not objective,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “I was horrified when I saw the way the investigator conducted himself, leading the witness with his own interpretation and the bias.”

He said the department usually has weeks to review and respond to reports, but he had only two working days.

In an unusual 28-page rebuttal attached to the report by his lawyers, Dr. Shulkin included findings from an independent ethics expert, affidavits from witnesses who contradicted the report, and transcripts of interviews conducted by the investigators that the lawyers said showed bias.

The department’s chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, also disputed the findings.

The report found that in seeking approval for the secretary’s wife, Dr. Merle Bari, to take the trip at public expense, Ms. Wright Simpson misrepresented to the department’s ethics office that a planned “special recognition dinner” was definite. “Ms. Wright Simpson’s false representations and alteration of an official record may have violated federal criminal statutes,” the report said, adding that the inspector general had referred the matter to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. The department declined to prosecute.

Ms. Wright Simpson said in an interview on Wednesday that the dinner she mentioned in the email had in fact taken place. She said she was not given any chance to see the inspector general’s report or respond to it before its release, despite requests through her lawyer.

The report said the secretary and his wife improperly accepted the Wimbledon tickets from Victoria Gosling, an organizer of the 2016 Invictus Games, which brought together wounded veterans for competition. The tickets’ face price was about $350, but their resale value, according to the report, was about $3,500.

Accepting such a gift violated ethics standards, according to the report. It recommended that the secretary repay the cost of the tickets and reimburse the government for his wife’s travel.

Dr. Shulkin said he would comply with recommendations, but maintained that he had done nothing improper. He said Ms. Gosling was a personal friend who offered the couple her sister’s unused tickets, and that there was nothing unethical in accepting them.

He said Ms. Wright Simpson’s conduct will be investigated, “and if it reveals she did something wrong, we will take action.”

The members of Congress in charge of the committees that oversee the department — Senators Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Jon Tester of Montana, and Representatives Phil Roe of Tennessee and Tim Walz of Minnesota — issued a joint statement expressing disappointment at the allegations detailed in the report.

“We believe that public officials must be held to a higher standard, and whether intentional or not, misusing taxpayer dollars is unacceptable,” they said in the statement. “We’re counting on Dr. Shulkin to actively address all of the allegations outlined in this report.”

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