IG rips VA chief over travel, tickets

Shulkin Trump telemed white house photo 

VA Secretary David Shulkin (center) shows off a telemedicine app at an Aug. 2017 White House event. (Official White House photo) 

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is in the crosshairs of an inspector general report, which alleges Shulkin improperly accepted government travel for his wife and free tickets to Wimbledon while on a 10-day trip to Europe that cost taxpayers more than $120,000.

The report, released Feb. 14, generated strong pushback from Shulkin, a private law firm representing the secretary and the VA's deputy secretary.

The IG says its investigations have validated claims first aired in a Sept. 28, 2017, Washington Post article that Shulkin accepted government-paid travel for his wife, Dr. Merle Bari, for the trip and accepted tickets to tennis matches in violation of ethics rules. The report suggests that Shulkin and others acting on his behalf made false statements to the press. Additionally, the report alleges that Shulkin's chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, "made false representations to a VA ethics official" and "altered an official record" to make it appear the nature of the trip made Bari's government-paid travel a legitimate expense.

VA IG Michael Missal said in the report that he referred these alleged violations to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution, but that DOJ "decided not to prosecute at this time."

Missal's report also notes there is no evidence that Shulkin was aware of misrepresentations being made on his behalf or on behalf of his wife.

Lawmakers charged with VA oversight also are concerned. In a rare bipartisan, bicameral statement, the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House VA committees said, "We are still reviewing the full report, but after our briefing from VA Inspector General Mike Missal, we are disappointed by the details … regarding the trip taken by Dr. Shulkin and other VA officials, and we hope that the secretary will fully address the IG's findings."

The Europe trip took place about a month after Shulkin sent an all-staff memo, drafted in the wake of private travel scandals that led to the resignation of then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, reminding VA employees about prudent limits on government-paid travel.

The report alleges that, contrary to statements from Shulkin and his wife, the source of the Wimbledon tickets was not a personal friend, and therefore not subject to an exception on gifts.

This point in particular is hotly disputed in a rebuttal, included in the report, that was offered by the private law firm retained by Shulkin.

In a 16-page letter that includes 20 footnotes and 11 pages of signed witness declarations, Shulkin's attorney, Justin V. Shur of Molo Lamken, argues that the IG's analysis "is highly flawed both factually and legally." Shur argues that OIG misapplied its own standards throughout the probe, and that an OIG investigator improperly questioned a witness and supplied his own conclusions about Shulkin's conduct while downplaying potentially exculpatory evidence.

To get an idea of the level of detail contained in the report and the response, Shulkin's attorney and the OIG report are at odds on whether an "x" as a signoff to a text message is an indicator of friendship and intimacy or a throwaway sentiment commonly used by the British.

Shulkin's own response doesn't get in the weeds of the argument, but he contested the accusations as well.

"It is outrageous that you would portray my wife and me as attempting to take advantage of the government," Shulkin wrote to the OIG. "Your staff's conduct related to this investigation reeks of an agenda. Your portrayal of this trip is overall and entirely inaccurate."

The IG report recommends that Shulkin reimburse VA $4,312 to cover his wife's travel, and reimburse the source of the Wimbledon tickets for the full value of those expenses, or pay the Treasury an equal amount if the source declines to be reimbursed.

Additionally, the IG wants VA to examine whether administrative action against the chief of staff and others who allegedly made false representations cited in the report is appropriate. The IG also wants VA to examine travel vouchers and attendance records for trip participants, and make adjustments to leave and expenses where appropriate.

Finally, the IG is seeking refresher training for staff, including all travelers on the Europe trip, about travel approvals and gifts.

VA Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman, in agency reply comments, said Shulkin would reimburse travel and ticket costs if advised by the agency general counsel to do so. Bowman said the department needed more time to address whether to take adverse action against other VA employees named in the report, conduct an audit of trip expenses and attendance or provide refresher training for senior staff.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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