VA chief says reporters did not do their homework before accusing him of wasting taxpayer money on personal excursions during a trip to Europe in July.
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin on Thursday highlighted the success of a recently enacted law in increasing accountability and integrity among VA employees while at the same time defending himself against allegations of inappropriately spending taxpayer money.
At an event hosted by The Washington Post, Shulkin praised the VA Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Act for making it easier to remove employees who violate the agency’s professional and ethical standards. President Trump signed the act into law in June. Shulkin also used the opportunity to fire back at Post journalists who reported he had used government funds to subsidize a number of personal excursions during a 10-day business trip to Europe in July.
Shulkin said the reporters “didn’t do their homework” and asserted he used his own money to pay for the outings, which included touring Westminster Abbey, taking a cruise down the Thames, and attending the women’s final at Wimbledon.
“Last time I checked there’s nothing illegal about going to enjoy a sporting event—there was nothing inappropriate about this,” Shulkin said. “It shouldn’t be this hard to come to Washington to serve your country and have to go through this type of stuff.”
While he acknowledged the need for citizens to scrutinize public officials, he accused the media of not always reporting the facts accurately. Shulkin refused to comment on his fellow Cabinet members’ questionable travel habits, telling the moderator Ed O’Keefe “we may not have the full story” and he’ll give them the benefit of the doubt until all the facts come out.
After the Post published its investigation, VA started publishing details of Shulkin’s travels on the agency’s website, including information on why, where and how he took the trip and who joined him there. Shulkin called himself “a strong believer in transparency” and said he applies the same standards of openness to employees at VA.
The agency publishes a monthly report on employees who have been demoted, suspended or fired under the VA Accountability Act. While it doesn’t disclose any personal information, the most recent report shows that more than 1,600 VA employees have had some kind of action taken against them.
Shulkin recalled an instance prior to the accountability law when he had trouble removing a psychiatrist who was caught watching pornography while treating a patient, and stressed how crucial the law has been in giving agency leaders the authority to act quickly when problems arise.
Employees have supported the increased accountability, he said, and agency leaders have been conscious of making sure issues are dealt with fairly. With the vast majority of problems occurring at hospitals and treatment centers across the country, Shulkin noted that it’s crucial to empower managers on the ground level to address situations as they see fit because they’re the ones who know the issues best.
“I’m trying to stop VA [from] being run out of Washington, D.C.,” he said. “VA needs to be run out in the field where the care is, and we need to give those who are responsible for running facilities both the authority and accountability to get their jobs done right.”