VA Secretary Shulkin 'Misused' Taxpayer Money for Euro Trip: Watchdog

In this Feb. 14, 2017 file photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
In this Feb. 14, 2017 file photo, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin became the latest Trump administration official to be caught up in a travel expense scandal Wednesday with the release of a watchdog's report that painted his 11-day trip to Europe last July as more of a sightseeing junket than official business.

The trip to Denmark and England that cost taxpayers at least $122,334 was replete with "serious derelictions" on Shulkin's part that included his improper acceptance of Wimbledon tickets and airfare for his wife, according to the report by the office of Veterans Affairs Department Inspector General Michael Missal.

The report charged that Shulkin's chief of staff, Viveca Wright Simpson, made false representations to a VA ethics lawyer and altered an official email to secure approval of payment of the $4,132 airfare for Shulkin's wife, Dr. Merle Bari, a dermatologist in private practice.

The report also described a "significant amount of personal time" that was mixed in during the trip with meetings on veterans matters in Copenhagen and London.

The personal time included numerous side trips, sightseeing tours, private dinners and tickets to the Wimbledon tennis women's finals, which Venus Williams lost to Garbarine Muguruza.

In addition, a VA aide "effectively acted as a personal travel concierge" to Shulkin and his wife to plan and arrange their personal itineraries during the trip, the IG's report said.

The aide made "extensive use of official time" to make the arrangements, the report said, and "this was time that should have been spent conducting official VA business and not providing personal travel concierge services to Secretary Shulkin and his wife," Inspector General Michael Missal wrote.

The IG's office said the entire trip amounted to a "misuse of VA resources," and referred several allegations from the report to the Justice Department, which has decided not prosecute at this time.

In a letter to Missal, Shulkin heatedly denied the allegations in the report. Referring to Missal, Shulkin said "Your staff's conduct related to this investigation reeks of an agenda. Your portrayal of this trip is overall and entirely inaccurate."

Shulkin charged that the report "draws conclusions based on subjective and arbitrary criteria. "It is outrageous that you would portray my wife and me as attempting to take advantage of the government," Shulkin said, but he agreed to pay back the money for his wife's airfare and the Wimbledon tickets.

The report drew condemnation for Shulkin in a joint statement from the bipartisan leadership of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committee, and at least one call for his resignation.

"We believe that public officials must be held to a higher standard, and whether intentional or not, misusing taxpayer dollars is unacceptable," the joint statement said.

The statement was signed by Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, and Jon Tester, D-Montana, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate committee, and Reps. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, and Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, the chairman and ranking member of the House Committee.

"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."

Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee and a veteran of both the Army and the Marine Corps, said in a Tweet that "It's exactly corruption and abuses like this that doesn't help our veterans."

He said that Shulkin, the only holdover in the Cabinet from the Obama administration, "must resign now," adding that President Donald Trump "ran on accountability. It starts here."

Shulkin was the latest high-ranking Trump administration official to be caught up In controversies over their penchant for first-class travel, their use of government and military aircraft, and their activities during trips listed as official business.

In September, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price was forced to resign after he racked up $400,000 in bills for charter flights. Questions have also been raised about the first class travel and official business trips of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and most recently Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt.

The IG's report said that Shulkin told the IG's staff that he found the trip with his wife, three VA executives and a security detail of six "substantively valuable to VA's mission."

In Copenhagen, Shulkin said he had a number of meetings on issues related to Danish veterans' health issues and their healthcare system, participated in a roundtable lunch with CEOs of Danish healthcare companies, and visited a veterans' home and hospital.

In London, Shulkin said he participated in a summit on veterans issues including "post-traumatic disorder, rates of suicide and homelessness among veterans, barriers to mental health care, alternative therapies, veteran-centric approaches to the provision of services, and early intervention."

The IG's report said that the 11-day trip included nine full days in Europe, but "there were only three-and-a-half days of meetings in addition to a reception the evening before the start of the London Summit."

In Denmark, the personal activities included "touring Amalienborg Palace for the Changing of the Guard; visiting Christiansborg Palace, Rosenborg Castle, and Frederiksborg Castle; taking a boat tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn Canal; and shopping in Copenhagen," the report said.

"There was also an unplanned excursion across the border to Malmo, Sweden, for dinner," the report said.

In London, the personal activities included excursions to the Churchill War Rooms, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, and Westminster Abbey; a Thames River cruise; and visits to St. Paul's Cathedral, Tower of London (including the Ceremony of the Keys), the Tower Bridge, Shakespeare's Globe, London Eye, and Windsor Castle.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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