WASHINGTON -- Two Democrats accused Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie on Tuesday of using department resources to campaign for the reelection of President Donald Trump and other Republican candidates.
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., leaders of the Senate and House Veterans Affairs Committees, alleged that Wilkie and other VA officials violated the Hatch Act -- a law that bars federal employees, including Cabinet members, from engaging in political activity on the job.
Wilkie's taxpayer-funded trips often mix official business with "overtly political activities," they said.
Tester and Takano outlined their concerns in a letter to Wilkie on Tuesday. They sent copies of the letter to the U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the VA Office of Inspector General.
"Data suggests that the travel, events and other related official actions of VA senior leaders are steering the department away from its apolitical mission and potentially using department resources in an attempt to tip the scale in favor of the president and other Republican candidates," the Democrats wrote. "We are disappointed in the recent partisan turn of the department."
The VA dismissed the accusations Tuesday as a partisan maneuver. VA Press Secretary Christina Noel said that Wilkie has traveled "in a non-partisan fashion" to 49 states during his time as secretary.
"These trips to hear firsthand from our employees in the field are a fundamental responsibility of any VA secretary," Noel said. "The notion that these visits are somehow improper is absurd."
Tester and Takano outlined examples of actions which they deemed potential violations of the Hatch Act. They alleged Wilkie helped elevate the reelection campaign of Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., during trips he took to North Carolina in his role as VA secretary.
They also accused Wilkie of aiding the reelection campaigns of Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., during recent trips to Maine and Montana.
Tester and Takano questioned the upcoming travel schedules of Wilkie and other VA leaders, which show physical and virtual visits to key battleground states in the presidential and Senate races, they said.
"These events -- and others by officials within your department, especially over the last year -- require further scrutiny to understand their origins, objectives, and how they were planned, sequenced, prioritized, and financed," the lawmakers wrote.
Further, Tester and Takano alleged that Wilkie prevented Democratic lawmakers from meeting with leaders of local VA facilities. They said the VA recently pulled out of a virtual town hall event about the VA hospital in Loma Linda, California. The same day, VA staff participated in a different event in Louisiana, hosted by a Republican member of Congress.
The allegations against Wilkie come just a few days after the Office of Special Counsel determined that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue violated the Hatch Act for openly advocating for Trump's reelection during an August visit to North Carolina. The Office of Special Counsel called on Perdue to reimburse the federal government for the costs associated with his participation in the event.