VA Secretary David Shulkin testifies before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee Thursday.

VA Secretary David Shulkin testifies before the House Veterans' Affairs Committee Thursday. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

VA Secretary Shulkin Faces Only Mild Criticism From Congress Over Travel Abuse Allegations

Shulkin says he has reimbursed the government for his wife's travel and inappropriate gifts.

The head of the Veterans Affairs Department faced only minor disapproval on Capitol Hill in the wake of a watchdog report that found him guilty of improperly using government resources while traveling abroad and lying about it, with members of Congress seemingly accepting his response as adequate.

VA Secretary David Shulkin has been largely defiant since the inspector general released its report. The VA chief told members of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee Thursday the scandal was merely a problem of “optics.” After initially denying any wrongdoing whatsoever, however, Shulkin told lawmakers on Thursday he has reimbursed the government for the cost of his wife’s travel and for tickets to a tennis match the IG said he improperly received as a gift. Still, many lawmakers said the findings against Shulkin were just distractions.

“I encourage you to take every step to address the findings of this report, and to make any changes necessary,” said Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the committee’s chairman. “We’ve got a lot of work to do on behalf of our nation’s veterans, and we cannot allow distractions like these to keep us from doing that work.”

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the top Democrat on the committee, also offered Shulkin words of praise.

“Your intention to help veterans is clear,” Walz said. “And the trust you have on this committee is strong, but we do need to address these allegations.” He suggested the panel’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hold a hearing to “clear this up,” and Roe said he has requested additional documentation from the IG. Walz also called it “unusual” that Shulkin was not afforded more time to respond to the allegations.

Walz did offer some criticism of Shulkin, noting VA’s fiscal 2019 budget request calls for cutting the IG’s workforce by 3 percent. “The optics of cutting the IG today are really, really bad,” Walz said.

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. The doctored email ultimately led to VA’s ethics office approving Shulkin’s wife traveling with the secretary to Europe on the government’s dime, as his chief of staff made it appear as if Shulkin was receiving an award.

The secretary has said that his chief of staff’s email has been hacked, which Walz suggested he would ask the Justice Department to investigate.

Shulkin said he regrets that attention was taken off the work VA is doing. “I’m committed to doing what we have to do to focus on veterans and make this better,” he said.

Following a plea from Roe at the top of the hearing to keep questioning relevant to the previously determined subject matter, lawmakers from both parties repeatedly mentioned the allegations briefly before turning to questions about VA’s budget request. Democratic Reps. Elizabeth Esty, Conn., and Ann McClane Kuster, N.H., both told Shulkin they appreciated his willingness to discuss the issue and hoped he would be forthcoming with information about it in the weeks ahead. Rep. Jim Banks, R-Ind., told Shulkin he was proud of the work the secretary and the committee accomplished together.

“I appreciate the seriousness that you’ve taken [with] the IG report and addressing it and I look forward to continuing to see you do that,” Banks said.

Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., warned against anyone judging Shulkin too quickly.

“I will remind those present, including the media and my colleagues, that the nation of American veterans for 242 years have fought to establish and maintain a nation of laws, a nation where a man is considered innocent until proven guilty, and I would hope we are not sliding towards a nation of allegation and accusation,” Higgins said.

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., on Wednesday called on Shulkin to resign and at Thursday’s hearing criticized the secretary for indicating the issues with his travel were related only to perception.

“It’s not the optics that are not good,” Coffman said, “it’s the facts that are not good.”