A scathing inspector general’s report published Wednesday told Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to pay back the government more than $4,000 for the cost of bringing his wife on a trip to Europe – and says his top aide doctored an email to try to justify it.
The inspector general’s report says Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tennis tickets for a July 2017 final featuring ace Venus Williams that he and his wife attended.
And it says his top aide made ‘false representations’ to justify his wife accompanying him – claiming that she was invited.
The 11-day trip included meetings about veterans as well as the tennis match, plus a tour of Westminster Abbey and a Thames river cruise, investigators found.
An aide acted as a ‘de facto personal travel concierge,’ according to investigators, handling travel queries from Shulkin’s wife.
Shulkin complied shortly after it was published by saying he had written a check – but blamed his staff for the problem, telling USA Today: ‘I relied upon my staff.’
A scathing inspector general’s report calls on Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin to pay back the government more than $4,000 for the cost of bringing his wife Dr. Merle Bari on a trip to Europe
Prestige match: The Wimbledon final saw Garbiñe Muguruza beat Venus Williams
In one batch of emails, his wife Dr. Merle Bari wrote an aide weeks before the trip: ‘Is there earlier flight from Copenhagen? Wimbledon tickets? High tea? Roman baths in [B]ath. Would want to do baths not just tour.’
She added in another: ‘We like to be busy, we often don’t spend too much time at palaces or cathedrals. Secretary agrees that need some time to check in with work answer emails or call back each weekday so can be flexible in later afternoon after we do sightseeing.’
The report released Wednesday said Shulkin should reimburse the government more than $4,000, and it added to the weight of controversies involving expensive or wasteful plane travel by top administration officials.
But Shulkin told USA Today he had no involvement with his chief of staff’s actions to organize the trip.
‘We act with the highest ethical character,’ he said. ‘I relied upon my staff to do this, and in retrospect, I wish that I had asked more questions.’
President Donald Trump’s health secretary, Tom Price, resigned in September after questions arose about his use of private jets for multiple government trips.
The IG includes damning information about the conduct of Shulkin’s top aide took to justify the trip – and goes on to recommend criminal prosecution, although the Justice Department is taking no action at this time.
The report also reveals holes in the ‘friendship’ exception Shulkin invoked to justify a pair of tickets he got to attend Wimbledon on the trip, which also involved meetings about veterans issues in London.
He got the tickets from Victoria Gosling, who was chief executive for the 2016 Invictus Games, founded by Prince Harry and told investigator she was his wife’s friend, according to the report.
Dr. David Shulkin, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, and Dr. Merle Bari, attend the 2017 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at The Kennedy Center on October 22, 2017 in Washington, DC
President Donald Trump gives the pen he used to sign an executive order supporting veterans as they transition from military to civilian life to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin (R) during a ceremony in the Oval Office with Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Neilsen at the White House January 9, 2018 in Washington, DC. Shulkin emphasized that the executive order will work to help further prevent veterans suicide
President Donald Trump, accompanied by Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin talks with a patient during a Veterans Affairs Department “telehealth” event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC on Thursday, Aug 03, 2017
Investigators then made 19 attempts to reach her, according to the report, finally lining up a phone call.
After Gosling repeatedly referred to Dr. Bari only by her last name, they asked whether she knew what Bari’s first name was.
‘You actually — I think that kept throwing me. I’m actually having a genuine blank here,’ Gosling responded. ‘Ms. Gosling was unable to recall Dr. Bari’s name before the interview concluded,’ they wrote.
Shulkin told investigators regarding the tickets: ‘They were privately done, no government money,’ the Washington Post reported, having earlier written about the trip.
Shulkin’s overseas trip may have involved too much leisure time at taxpayers’ expense, according to the report by the agency’s internal watchdog. It found that VA ethics officials should not have approved the commercial airfare for Shulkin’s wife, Merle Bari, and they did so only after a staffer misrepresented the trip to justify her traveling on the public’s dime.
The audit by VA inspector general Michael Missal also questioned Shulkin’s decision to use agency staff on official time to arrange his personal sightseeing activities.
The trip to England and Denmark last July included a tour of Westminster Abbey, attendance at the women’s final at Wimbledon featuring American Venus Williams and a cruise on the Thames River.
Citing the improper acceptance of expenses, Missal called on Shulkin to reimburse $4,312 paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs for Bari’s travel costs as well as the price of the Wimbledon tickets. He received the seats as a gift from a professional acquaintance.
Shulkin’s lawyers said he did nothing improper and that the audit was unfair.
A VA spokesman, Curt Cashour, said Shulkin ‘travels far less than any recent VA secretary, takes no private jets, and is the only Cabinet secretary to post details of his travel online for all to see.’
The VA inspector general began a review in October after The Washington Post reported that Shulkin and his wife had spent nearly half their time on personal activities during the European trip. The VA said the two flew commercially, and the taxpayers covered her airfare as part of ‘temporary duty’ travel expenses.
But the audit said Bari’s airfare was approved only after Shulkin’s chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, intervened and misrepresented that the secretary would receive an award in Denmark. It said the trip may have violated an agency cost-saving directive from Shulkin weeks before the trip.
Shulkin’s lawyers said the trip was an important chance to discuss ‘best practices’ with U.S. allies for veterans’ health care. The lawyers said Shulkin and his wife took appropriate advantage of ‘down time’ between business meetings and bought their own tickets to local attractions.
Shulkin, a former undersecretary for health under the Obama administration, insisted that he had planned to pay for his wife’s airfare but considered the VA reimbursement only after staff suggested the idea.
The travel involved trips to Denmark and then England, separated by four days including a weekend during which Shulkin and his wife did sightseeing. According to VA, it was unclear whether scheduling two separate trans-Atlantic trips to avoid the four-day gap between work-related events would have saved money.
After the newspaper report last September, the VA began posting Shulkin’s travel itineraries and any use of private or government aircraft.
Shulkin isn’t the only Cabinet member to have faced questions about travel since Price resigned.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Environmental Protection Administration head Scott Pruitt have acknowledged the use of government or private flights at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Zinke and Pruitt are being investigated by agency watchdogs for their trips, which they said ethics officials approved. Perry has made the same case.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was investigated for use of government aircraft for official trips. A Treasury audit last October said he failed to provide enough proof of why he needed to use more expensive modes of travel but there was no violation of law.