VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin fought to keep his job Thursday by pledging to "make things right" in a travel expense scandal over a top aide doctoring records to pay for his wife's airfare and tennis tournament tickets on an 11-day trip to Europe.
"I do regret the decisions that have been made that have taken the focus off of that important work" of caring for veterans, Shulkin said at the opening of a House hearing on the VA's fiscal 2019 budget.
"I've made the decision to reimburse the Treasury" and to implement the recommendations in a damning report by the office of Veterans Affairs Department Inspector General Michael Missal on the "misuse of funds" during the trip, he said.
"I'm committed to doing what we have to do to focus on veterans and make this better," he added.
Shulkin said he would "do whatever I have to do to make things right."
The IG's report said that Shulkin's wife's airfare cost $4,132. "I've already written a check to the Treasury," he said.
Shulkin told the House Veterans Affairs Committee, "I do recognize the optics of this are not good. I accept responsibility."
Coffman noted that Shulkin issued a department-wide memo on "essential travel" two weeks before the trip, in which he stressed that managers must be held accountable for their expenses.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, the ranking committee member and a retired Army sergeant major, said the optics also are not good on proposals in the VA's budget that would cut funding for the IG's office.
"The optics of cutting the OIG today are really, really bad," Walz said.
Walz has called for a Justice Department investigation into the report issued Wednesday by the IG's office on Shulkin's trip to Copenhagen and London, which included numerous sightseeing excursions, private dinners and tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament women's finals.
The IG's report charged that Shulkin's chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, altered an aide's email to make it appear as though Shulkin was receiving an award from the Danish government to justify his wife's airfare. Shulkin did not receive an award during the trip.
Shulkin became the latest of five current and former Trump administration Cabinet members to be investigated over travel expenses.
Health and Human Services secretary Tom Price resigned last year after disclosures that he spent $400,000 on taxpayer-funded charter flights.
Shulkin had been defiant immediately after release of the report Wednesday, but his tone changed markedly at the hearing as he accepted responsibility for what the IG called "serious derelictions."
In a letter Wednesday to Missal, Shulkin heatedly denied the allegations in the report. Referring to Missal, he 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," but agreed to pay back the money for his wife's airfare and the Wimbledon tickets.
At the hearing Thursday, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said public officials need to be held to a "higher standard" and noted he was "disappointed by the allegations raised by this report."
But he urged committee members to focus on the VA's budget.
In releasing Monday its $4.4 trillion budget requests for fiscal 2019, the Trump administration proposed $198.6 billion for the VA, an increase of more than $12 billion over the $186 billion for fiscal 2018 -- which Congress is still working to pass by a March 23 deadline to get through the 12 Appropriations Committees in the House and Senate.
"The 2019 budget reflects the strong commitment of the president to provide the services and benefits that our nation's veterans have earned," Shulkin said in a statement.
At the hearing, Shulkin said his top priority remains curbing veterans suicides. He also said there is adequate funding to keep the Choice program, which allows veterans to opt for community care, in operation through the rest of this year while Congress and the VA work out permanent fixes.
He said the budget would also allow him to hire 605 more personnel to work on cutting down the appeals backlogs.
Roe and Walz said they expect to hold more hearings on the possibility of expanding the caregivers program, in which family members receive small stipends to care for seriously disabled veterans. "I do see a pathway forward where we can do this this year," Roe said.
Most committee members complied with Roe's admonition to keep the hearing focused on the budget, but Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, said he was "profoundly frustrated" by the alleged wrongdoing in the report, although he acknowledged Shulkin's "dedication to the mission of this department."
In a Tweet on Wednesday, Coffman 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."
On Wednesday, Roe and Walz joined Sens. Johnny Isakson, R-Georgia, and Jon Tester, D-Montana, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, in expressing their concerns over the IG's report.
"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.
In his defense, Shulkin said the trip last July, which cost a total of at least $122,334, was primarily devoted to official business. "I do I believe this was essential travel," he said.
The trip included a London Summit with allies on veterans issues including post-traumatic stress and suicides, he said, and "if the U.S. does not participate, that ends."
However, the IG's report stated that the 11-day trip involved nine whole days in Europe, and little more than three of the nine days were devoted to official business.
The report described a "significant amount of personal time" that was mixed in during the trip with the meetings on veterans matters in Copenhagen and London.
The personal time for Shulkin and his wife Dr. Merle Bari, a dermatologist in private practice; three VA executives; and a security detail of six included numerous side trips, sightseeing tours, private dinners and tickets to the Wimbledon tennis women's finals won by Garbine Muguruza over Venus Williams.
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 the 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.
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."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.