Veteran Affairs Chief and His Staff Misled Ethics Officials about a Taxpayer-Funded Trip to Europe

February 14, 2018, 5:37 PM UTC
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin Addresses VA Healthcare System
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 06: Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks about issues regarding the VA, during a luncheon at the National Press Club, on November 6, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Mark Wilson—Getty Images

The Secretary of Veterans Affairs’ chief of staff doctored an email and lied about the purpose of his trip to Europe with his wife that was paid for by taxpayers, according to an investigation by the agency’s inspector general.

V.A. Secretary David Shulkin and his wife Merle Bari spent 10 days in Copenhagen and London during July 2017. Though the delegation was there for official meetings to discuss veterans health issues, the couple also went on a river cruise and attended the Wimbeldon tennis tournament with tickets that they accepted as an ethically questionable gift, the Washington Post reported.

An internal investigation by the agency found that the V.A.’s third-most senior official, Vivieca Wright Simpson, altered the language of an email so that it appeared that Shulkin was receiving an award from the Danish government in order to justify covering his wife’s travel as well, which cost taxpayers $4,312.

“Trip book” itineraries were printed for each of the 15 members of the delegation at $100 per person. Bari corresponded with an aide while on the trip to coordinate the couple’s travel requests.

“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,” she wrote to the aide in an email.

In a report released Wednesday, Inspector General Michael Missal said, “Although the [inspector general’s office] cannot determine the value V.A. gained from the Secretary and his delegation’s three and a half days of meetings in Copenhagen and London at a cost of at least $122,334, the investigation revealed serious derelictions by V.A. personnel.”

Shulkin is the lone Obama-era holdover in the administration and served as V.A. undersecretary since June 2015 before taking the agency’s top position in January 2017.

The trip expenses came under fire after multiple members of the Trump administration were found to have exorbitant travel costs, including former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price who stepped down as a result of the scandal.

Trips taken by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and his wife Louise Linton also came under scrutiny last fall. Their travel totaled more than $800,000 over eight months and was paid for by tax dollars.

First Lady Melania Trump spent about $675,000 to travel between New York City and Washington, D.C. while her son finished his school year during the first part of Trump’s presidency . While that figure is higher than the typical travel budget for a first lady (Michelle Obama spent about $350,000 per year during all eight years of her husband’s tenure), there is no indication that the trips were unethical or improper.

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