- Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin told The Daily Caller News Foundation that his agency emails were hacked or spoofed
- The Department of Veterans Affairs released a statement that same day saying it could find no evidence of hacking
- Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman believes that the claims are an attempt to muddy the waters around inspector general report on the VA
Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin detailed new claims that his agency was hacked or spoofed in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation, but minutes later the VA released a statement saying they could find no evidence of compromised emails.
Republican Rep. Mike Coffman told TheDCNF the discrepancy appears to him to be evidence of an attempt to “muddy the waters” around an investigation that led to the resignation of Shulkin’s chief of staff.
An inspector general’s report released Wednesday said taxpayers were wrongfully billed for Shulkin’s wife’s travel to Europe. It hinged upon findings that his longtime chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, changed a June 2017 email in order to facilitate the payments. Shulkin implied to Congress on Thursday that she might not have been responsible for that email, and rather, it might have been a hacker impersonating her. He insisted the department has “found there are people sending emails from her account that aren’t her.”
In a videotaped interview at The Daily Caller News Foundation office Friday, Shulkin claimed that his assertions of hacking rested upon an impersonation attempt he says occurred hours before he told Congress about a history of such activity.
On the day the IG report came out, an email was sent from his chief of staff’s account requesting a suspicious wire transfer of funds to be made out of the VA, he said.
“It was a request to wire money out of the VA to somewhere else,” Shulkin told TheDC’s Julia Nista. “Fortunately our finance department thought that was an unusual request and brought it to our attention so there was no money sent out.”
“The finance department came to Mrs. Wright Simpson on Wednesday morning and said ‘why are you requesting a wire transfer outside the VA,’ and they brought her the email, and she said ‘I never wrote that email,'” he said. “Mrs. Simpson’s email was being impersonated by someone else.”
He said the financial request was “hacking” or “spoofing” and did not actually come from Simpson.
“Wednesday was the first time that I was aware of that single situation and certainly want to make sure that we understand whether it was an isolated situation or something more extensive … I don’t know whether this is related to the approval of the travel, that’s something we want to understand, but we don’t have any evidence of that right now.”
“The motivation was a financial crime,” he said. It remained unclear what motive an impersonator would have to alter an email in order to help Shulkin’s wife book a trip, and he acknowledged that “we have no evidence that that’s related to the IG report, none at all.”
An hour after he left TheDCNF’s newsroom Friday afternoon, the department’s website posted a statement saying it had found no evidence of any hack, either in June or on Wednesday. “We have thus far found no credible or conclusive evidence of a compromise to our email system or a user’s account.”
Some observers questioned Shulkin’s claims that someone was impersonating his chief of staff and were suspicious that his allegations coincided with the release of the IG report.
“Based on the timing and the VA’s own press release which found no evidence of an outside intrusion, this appears like it could be a setup, a faked hack,” Rep. Mike Coffman, a Colorado Republican on the House Committee on Veterans Affairs who is former chair of its oversight panel, told TheDCNF. “I think that’s very suspicious. This is kind of my dog ate my homework.”
Coffman said Congress should call for Shulkin’s resignation due to what he says is earlier manipulation of evidence, and now, the implication to legislators that there was credible reason to think the email might not be real.
“What we know now is there’s no evidence of a hack. I think he’s trying to muddy the waters on this. It’s not the issue itself, its the cover-up, it speaks to his lack of integrity,” he said.
An early indication that the “hack” wasn’t what it seemed came at the hearing Thursday, when a member said the Department of Justice should be brought in to prosecute the hacker, Coffman told TheDCNF. “I looked at the secretary’s face, and he seemed surprised, like ‘uh-oh.’ But what else would you do?”
Pete Hegseth, a former head of Concerned Veterans for America who has studied the agency, said “to any level-headed person, this appears to be manufactured. The IG needs to look into whether he made this up.”
Shulkin has gone to significant lengths to try to control the fallout of the report. Before the purported Wednesday impersonation attempt, he hired an outside public relations crisis management firm to come up with strategies to rebut the report’s findings.
The VA secretary found himself on thin ice with the White House after warning its officials that a report was coming but downplaying its severity. The action caused the Trump Administration to feel misled. The White House forced Shulkin to delete a statement saying “I have done nothing wrong,” but on Friday, he declined to provide any examples when asked if he’d done anything wrong.
In initial comments to Congress and to reporters Thursday, Shulkin implied that an impersonator may have written the Europe travel email. However, the questioned email came following a verbal conversation, in the middle of an rapid-fire back-and-forth email thread, and included a request by Simpson to move the conversation over to phone by calling her at her office. Simpson herself would not deny having altered the email, but instead played coy, the IG report said. Shulkin didn’t explain how someone could have sent out emails in Simpson’s name without her knowledge given that recipients replied to those emails.
Shulkin recognized someone sending an email using his chief of staff’s name is a serious offense. “Impersonating a government official’s email is a serious crime,” he said.
Simpson stepped down from her post hours before TheDCNF interview. “Simpson has elected to retire following the release of a VA Inspector General investigation,” the VA said in a statement. “VA also announced that it has opened a formal investigation into her actions.”
But Shulkin acknowledged that the scandal has become not about the European junket, but about his trustworthiness and integrity.
The IG report determined that Shulkin personally said he could accept free tickets to Wimbledon on the trip because they were given by a friend of his wife’s, but the “friend” could not recall his wife’s name. Investigators also found that the VA “issued a misleading statement to The Washington Post about the trip and did not correct the statement.” Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs John Ullyot said Shulkin personally drafted the offending passage, but Shulkin claimed he had no involvement.
Before the Friday interview, TheDCNF learned from a senior department official that the secretary has an upcoming official trip to the Vatican with his wife. TheDCNF asked Shulkin what benefit the trip would provide to taxpayers or veterans.
“I am not going on any trip to the Vatican or any trip abroad. That is not happening” Shulkin responded.
The source reiterated that the trip is currently on the books, saying the pair are scheduled to travel to Vatican City from April 20 to 29 to attend the Pontifical Council for Culture.
The Vatican is the one of few countries in the world that do not have a military. The Council for Culture includes a show of European art and religious history.
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