VA Secretary Improperly Accepted Tennis Tickets and Billed Taxpayers for Wife's Travel, IG Says

VA Secretary David Shulkin at the White House in November. VA Secretary David Shulkin at the White House in November. Alex Brandon/AP

Veterans Affairs Department Secretary David Shulkin improperly paid for his wife’s travel, accepted gifts and lied about it, according to a new report from the agency’s watchdog.

The VA’s inspector general said in an administrative investigation report that Shulkin took several inappropriate actions during and in the aftermath of his official travel to attend meetings and events in Europe in July 2017. Shulkin defended the travel as “substantively valuable,” but the IG cited the secretary for his chief of staff’s “false representations” to a VA ethics official and altering an official record, accepting a gift in the form of tickets to a tennis match at Wimbledon, directing the “misuse of a subordinate's official time” and lying to the media.

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The report comes after President Trump’s former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was forced to resign after he was found to have spent tens of thousands of dollars on private and government chartered planes. Other Trump administration officials, such as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, also have faced criticism for their travel.

The auditors recommended that Shulkin reimburse VA $4,300 for his wife’s travel and also pay for the cost of his Wimbledon tickets either to the individual who gave them to the secretary or the U.S. Treasury. They called on VA to take “appropriate administrative action” against Vivieca Wright Simpson, Shulkin’s chief of staff; audit and correct the expense vouchers and timesheets for all travelers on the trip; and enhance the department's training on travel planning and the acceptance of gifts.

In order to have a VA ethics official sign off on Shulkin’s wife, Merle Bari, a doctor in the private sector, Wright Simpson altered an email from a colleague to make it seem as if Shulkin would be receiving an award during his visit to Copenhagen, Denmark. Wright Simpson then forwarded the doctored email to the ethics official to justify Bari’s travel on VA’s dime, and the ethics official signed off. The department paid more than $4,000 for Bari’s airline ticket, an expense the ethics official told the IG she would not have approved without the doctored email. The IG referred the matter to the Justice Department, which declined to prosecute.

Shulkin received the Wimbledon tickets from Victoria Gosling, who he said was a friend of his wife. When the investigators questioned Gosling, however, she did not know Shulkin’s wife’s name. The IG presented that and other information to VA’s ethics official who concluded they were not friends, meaning Shulkin did not qualify for the “personal friendship” exception to federal gift acceptance laws. In addition to the tickets, Gosling hosted Shulkin, Bari and their son for lunch at a private members’ dining room at Wimbledon prior to the match.

The IG said Shulkin and VA officials subsequently lied to the media about department ethics officials approving the acceptance of the gift in advance and that the secretary had paid for the tickets.

Shulkin and his wife spent nine days in Europe despite having just three and a half days worth of official business. They spent the remaining time on a number of tourist activities in London and Copenhagen, as well as an excursion to Sweden. The IG faulted Shulkin for making a VA program specialist plan those activities as part of his official duties.

VA spent at least $122,000 on the trip for Shulkin, Bari and the five additional members of its delegation, the IG found, though the auditors said a full accounting was not possible due to incomplete documentation. The department spent several thousand dollars rebooking flights and adjusting lodging accomodations after the delegation left Copenhagen earlier than anticipated so Shulkin and Bari could attend Wimbledon.

VA management disagreed with the IG’s findings and largely rejected its recommendations. The department said Shulkin would consult with the general counsel’s office to determine if he will pay for his wife’s travel and for the Wimbledon tickets. VA said it was “inappropriately compelled” with regard to a potential punishment for Wright Simpson, auditing its travel expense documentation and enhancing training. The IG did not provide adequate time to review the findings on those recommendations, VA said, and the department will later inform the auditors if it will accept them.

Leadership from VA's oversight committee's in both the House and Senate issued a joint statement on the report in which they said they were "disappointed" in Shulkin's conduct but did not call for any additional disciplinary action.

"We believe that public officials must be held to a higher standard, and whether intentional or not, misusing taxpayer dollars is unacceptable," said Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., and Jon Tester, D-Mt., and Reps. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., and Tim Walz, D-Minn. "We are still reviewing the full report, but after our briefing from VA Inspector General Mike Missal, we are disappointed by the details described in the IG report regarding the trip taken by Dr. Shulkin and other VA officials, and we hope that the secretary will fully address the IG’s findings."

Less than two weeks before Shulkin left for Europe, he issued a memorandum to VA staff instructing managers to determine whether travel was “essential” in order to “generate savings” at VA.

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