Inspector general: VA Secretary Shulkin's chief of staff altered email for wife's expenses

The chief of staff for Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin altered an email and made false statements to a depar...

Posted: Feb 15, 2018 4:31 AM
Updated: Feb 15, 2018 4:31 AM

The chief of staff for Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin altered an email and made false statements to a department ethics official that led to taxpayers covering expenses for Shulkin's wife on an official trip to Europe last summer, the agency's inspector general said in a report released Wednesday.

Vivieca Wright Simpson, Shulkin's chief of staff, altered language in an email regarding the logistics of the trip that led to the department paying $4,312 in airfare for Shulkin's wife, Merle Bari, according to the report.

The Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General referred those allegations to the Justice Department, which decided not to prosecute at this time, according to the IG report.

The investigation additionally found that Shulkin improperly accepted tickets to a Wimbledon championship tennis match during the trip and deemed inappropriate Shulkin's decision to use a VA staffer to arrange personal activities for himself and his wife during the trip, saying that the aide "effectively acted as a personal travel concierge" for the couple.

The report includes emails from Bari to the aide, in which she directs the aide, James Gough, to arrange visits to tourist attractions.

In one June 2017 email, Bari wrote to Gough: "Is there earlier flight from Copenhagen? Wimbledon tickets? High tea? Roman baths in [B]ath. Would want to do baths not just tour."

Gough's "tourist planning activities were in excess of what was reasonably necessary to perform any official security planning duties," the investigation found.

Shulkin's lawyers said he did nothing wrong, and in a response to VA Inspector General Michael Missal, Shulkin called the portrayal of the trip "overall and entirely inaccurate."

The investigation additionally found that Shulkin improperly accepted tickets to a Wimbledon championship tennis match during the trip, directed a VA program specialist to plan leisure activities for himself and his wife during the nine-day trip, saying that the aide "effectively acted as a personal travel concierge" to Shulkin and his wife.

Lawyers representing Shulkin told CNN on Monday that they had submitted a "robust response" to the findings of the review and that Shulkin "has not done anything improper."

In a response to VA's Inspector General Michael Missal dated February 12, 2018, Shulkin called the portrayal of the trip "overall and entirely inaccurate."

"Your staff's conduct related to this investigation reeks of an agenda," he said. "Your portrayal of this trip is overall and entirely inaccurate."

Missal has called on Shulkin to reimburse the money paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs for his wife's travel, as well as the price of the Wimbledon tickets he received as a gift.

Shulkin told investigators that he received the Wimbledon tickets as a gift from Victoria Gosling, the former CEO of the 2016 Invictus Games, who he described as a friend of his wife's. But, according to the report, when Gosling was interviewed, she could not remember Shulkin's wife's name.

"The OIG concludes that Ms. Gosling gave a gift of the Wimbledon tickets because of Secretary Shulkin's official position," the report states.

When President Donald Trump tapped Shulkin to head the VA in January 2017, he described Shulkin as "fantastic" and said he would do a "truly great job." Shulkin was a holdover from President Barack Obama's administration and previously served as the department's undersecretary for health.

A VA spokesman did not immediately respond to CNN's inquiry as to whether Wright Simpson remains on staff.

Other Trump cabinet secretaries have been mired in controversy over travel practices, including: EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Tom Price, the former Health and Human Services secretary who resigned under scrutiny last year for his use of chartered planes for business purposes.

In his response to the report, Shulkin, who has been the head of the VA for a little more than a year, characterized the report as a "direct assault on my spouse, my character, and my unblemished record of service to the Veterans Affairs Administration."

He wrote that it was the department that suggested that his wife travel be funded by the VA, citing past practice.

"To clarify once again, I had nothing to do with the process of obtaining approval for my wife's travel or otherwise planning the day-to-day travel arrangements," Shulkin wrote, saying that those tasks were delegated to his staff. "It is outrageous that you would portray my wife and me as attempting to take advantage of the government."

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