The allegations against Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin go beyond misuse of taxpayer money to fund a European trip for him and his wife, according to a Wednesday report from the Inspector General.
Shulkin also allegedly misled investigators and the media about reimbursing airfare for his wife and himself, used his staff to plan sightseeing trips around his official duties, and improperly accepted a gift of tickets to the Wimbledon tennis championships.
Shulkin, who was appointed to lead the VA by President Donald Trump and confirmed in February 2017, spent government resources to fly himself, his wife and several staff members to Copenhagen, Denmark, and London, England in June 2017. The trip was valuable to his work as secretary, Shulkin told the IG, and he met with multiple veterans counterparts during the nine days in Europe.
The IG found, however, that though the delegation “spent nine full days in Europe, there were only three-and-a-half days of meetings in addition to a reception the evening before the start of the London Summit,” amounting to a misuse of government resources.
The OIG also found that Shulkin’s chief of staff Vivieca Wright Simpson made false claims, violating federal law, and referred her case to the Department of Justice for potential prosecution. The DOJ chose not to bring charges.
Wright Simpson allegedly misled the department into thinking Shulkin would be receiving an award in Copenhagen, which would allow the VA to pay for his wife, dermatologist Dr. Merle Bari, to go on the trip. Her air fare cost the department $4,312.
Shulkin also directed an assistant to plan day excursions for him and his wife, the IG said. Their pleasure trips included visits to palaces around Denmark, a boat tour, shopping, and unplanned trips into Sweden for dinner during the continental part of their trip. In England, the couple visited Churchill War Rooms, Buckingham Palace, Kensington, Westminster Abbey, cruised the River Thames, and various other London tourist destinations, according to the IG report.
Aside from the potential misuse of government time and resources, the couple’s attendance of the Wimbledon championships caused the IG to raise ethics concerns. Shulkin and his wife received the Wimbledon tickets as a gift from Victoria Gosling, the head of social impact for the for-profit social impact group Auden.
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After a September Washington Post story about the tickets and the European trip, Shulkin told ethics investigators at the VA that “there is no business relationship, but purely a social friendship” between his wife and Gosling. The IG found that explanation to be insufficient to meet the “personal friendship” requirement that exempts cabinet secretaries from the normal ban on accepting gifts.
The VA misled the media when it told The Post that “all activities including Wimbledon were reviewed and approved by ethics counsel,” a statement the IG says is not accurate. According to one staffer, Shulkin helped write that statement, but he denies having any role in drafting it.
In a response to the IG’s investigation, VA Deputy Secretary Thomas Bowman said that the IG did not give enough time for Shulkin to respond. He added that the secretary would be willing to reimburse the department for the cost of Bari’s travel. The report “cast the VA, the secretary and others identified in the report in the least favorable light,” Bowman said.
The IG recommended that Shulkin reimburse the VA for his wife’s airfare, repay the cost of the Wimbledon tickets to Gosling or pay the same amount to the U.S. Treasury. The VA should take administrative action against Wright Simpson and any other employee involved in the European trip, the IG said, audit the expense records for all 11 travelers and review how it trains employees on travel planning and ethics rules pertaining to gifts.
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