Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, has demanded to know just what it is that senior adviser Darin Selnick does for Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie and why he has to go back and forth to his California home at taxpayer expense twice a month to do it.
In a letter to Wilkie late Wednesday, Takano, the new chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said that Selnick's "position and role at the Department remain unclear."
If Selnick is assigned to Wilkie's office as a senior adviser, then he should be working in Washington "so that precious taxpayer funds are not wasted paying commuting costs for employees," the lawmaker said.
Takano cited a ProPublica investigative piece, based on Freedom of Information requests, showing that $13,000 was spent on six trips for Selnick to travel from his California home to the VA's offices near the White House.
ProPublica said the FOIA documents showed that Selnick's expenses for the trips from Oct. 21 last year to Jan. 19 this year included $3,885.60 for six round-trip flights in coach, $5,595.46 for 23 nights in hotels and $1,976 for meals.
ProPublica said that Selnick declined comment on the report, and VA spokesmen did not immediately respond to questions on the expenses.
On Wednesday, The New York Times reported VA spokeswoman Susan Carter as saying that the VA considers Selnick's duty station to be in California and "his travel costs are standard" for federal employees who occasionally travel for work.
In his letter to Wilkie, Takano asked to know what Selnick's current duties are, where he is assigned to perform them, and his reasons for going back and forth to California.
If the travel expense payments were improper, "please provide me a plan to ensure the Department recoups those expenses," Takano's letter to Wilkie states.
Selnick, a former White House adviser on veterans issues, has been a frequent critic of wasteful spending at the VA. His advocacy for a rapid expansion of private health-care options for veterans has often brought him into conflict with veterans service organizations.
Before being named to Wilkie's office, Selnick, an Air Force veteran, worked for the advocacy group Concerned Veterans for America, which is mostly funded by the conservative activist brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch.
Travel expenses were a large factor last year in the firing of former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin. He was accused of improperly billing the airfare of his wife on a European trip.
Shulkin argued that the airfare had been approved by VA ethics officials, but he later agreed to reimburse the department.
However, Shulkin said that his firing mainly came about from undermining by "subversives" working at the White House on veterans issues, including Selnick, who pressed him to expand private health-care options, which he said would lead to the "privatization" of VA health care.
The VA later went into a full defense of Selnick's expertise and critical contributions to implementation of the Mission Act, which is aimed at reforming and expanding the department's troubled "Choice" program for referrals to community care.
In an email statement, Susan Carter, the VA's director of media relations, called Selnick "a veterans health care policy expert who helped write the Mission Act," which was signed into law last year by President Donald Trump as one of the signature achievements of his administration.
"There is no one more qualified to advise on the law's implementation, which is his primary role as an expert consultant in the office of the secretary," she said.
Carter also renewed her previous defense of Selnick's travel, saying he is based in California and "his travel costs are standard for federal employees who travel periodically to implement their responsibilities."
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.