Department of Veteran Affairs Secretary David Shulkin’s insinuation to Congress that the department had been hacked was not based in fact, the agency’s inspector general said Tuesday.
The accusations raise serious questions about whether Shulkin attempted to mislead Congress by implying that an incriminating email attributed to his chief of staff might not be authentic because someone had stolen her identity.
The only evidence of that, it turns out, consisted of an email from a comcast.net address sent hours before he made the assertion. Shulkin implied there was a longstanding pattern of someone convincingly impersonating chief of staff Vivica Simpson’s work email.
“Given the ‘External’ markings and the comcast.net email domain, it is obvious from the face of the ‘Vivieca Wright Simpson’ email that it did not originate from the VA email system,” the IG wrote.
The IG said VA’s information technology staff found “no evidence that Simpson’s actual VA email account was compromised during any period relevant to the Europe travel investigation or subsequently.”
Simpson, who retired hours after the VA first called attention to the incriminating email, would not cooperate with the IG, but said that she had never said her email was hacked.
Shulkin hired a private law firm and crisis PR firm to help him weather a major IG report faulting him for an extravagant trip to Europe and alleging he made false statements about it. It also claimed that Simpson falsified an email the government would pay for Shulkin’s wife to go on a trip to Europe.
“Wright Simpson denied having sent the email with altered information, and showed Shulkin evidence that her email had been hacked and that someone had been sending emails in her name, [Shulkin] said,” Politico reported Feb. 14 — the day the report was released.
The following day, he faced lawmakers over the report, and again mentioned hacking, suggesting Simpson had been framed.
Minnesota Rep. Tim Walz told Shulkin that if that was true, the hacker should be prosecuted.
“These allegations from the VA Secretary that the third senior-most official at VA may have been the target of criminals committing fraud and computer intrusion with the intention of harming her reputation, and that these criminal activities took place on VA computers and networks are very serious,” he wrote to Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Another committee member, Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, said when Walz offered to help punish the hacker, Shulkin didn’t have the expected reaction. “I looked at the secretary’s face, and he seemed surprised, like ‘uh-oh.’ But what else would you do?” he told The Daily Caller News Foundation.
The following day, Shulkin acknowledged to TheDCNF that the only evidence of impersonation was limited to an occurrence the very day the IG report was released.
“On Wednesday we became aware that Mrs. Simpson’s email was being impersonated by someone else. We have no evidence that that’s related to the IG report … that’s something we want to understand,” he said.
But he still did not reveal that it was a fake personal email account. TheDCNF asked if Simpson might have sent the email herself to try to get out of trouble. “It’s not the way it was explained to me. It was explained that someone had taken over her email,” he said.
“It was a request to wire money out of the VA to somewhere else,” Shulkin said. “Fortunately, our Finance Department thought that was an unusual request and brought it to our attention so there was no money sent out.”
The VA’s IG wrote to Walz on Tuesday saying it had worked with the Department of Justice Public Corruption unit to obtain Simpson’s records and found the email was far less sophisticated.
Shulkin had personally seen the evidence upon which he based his claim, and it was merely a comcast.net email account that used Simpson’s name and was “purportedly seeking to obtain payment on a purchase order,” the letter said.
The incident therefore could not have explained the Europe travel email, which came from her VA account. Simpson falsified another person’s statement in the email so the government would pay for Shulkin’s wife to go on the trip, the IG claims.
Coffman, the former chair of the VA’s oversight subcommittee, sent a letter to President Donald Trump on Wednesday calling Shulkin’s conduct “disgraceful.”
“I write to ask you the relieve Secretary Shulkin of his current duties,” he wrote.
The hacking excuse wasn’t the first time Shulkin tried to manipulate evidence,” he said. “The Secretary knowingly mischaracterized” a person who gave him free Wimbledon tickets “as a friend of his wife to ethics officials. The report indicates that he did so specifically to mislead the investigators into believing that these tickets qualified for the ‘personal friendship’ exception to the rule prohibiting the acceptance of gifts.”
The report also says that immediately after a reporter called to ask if two were actually friends, Shulkin’s wife called the supposed friend, and they spoke for 10 minutes. Immediately after the call ended, the friend sent a text message saying “hope you are well.” Shulkin’s attorneys attempted to use the text as evidence of a friendship.
Coffman’s later says that only days before going on the Europe trip, Shulkin sent a memo to all VA staff “demanding that all VA travel be ‘essential’ as a cost-saving mechanism. “The Secretary’s eleven-day trip consisted of three and a half days of meetings” and “included significant personal time for sightseeing and other unofficial duties,” according to the OIG report.
“I believe that Secretary Shulkin clearly lacks the moral authority to lead the VA and the integrity expected of a member of your cabinet,” Coffman wrote.
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