VA Office of Inspector General report

Shulkin gets hammered in IG report

Jonathan Kaupanger
February 14, 2018 - 3:16 pm
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Four days sightseeing in London is blowing up in VA Secretary Dr. David J. Shulkin’s face. The problem is, the four days happened on a taxpayer funded, $122,334 VA business trip. 

Apparently, in a USA Today article, when Shulkin, talking about his wife’s airfare, said “the government, through our ethics (office), approved a coach travel for her airfare,” he left out a few details.  First bit of trouble comes from Vivieca Wright Simpson, VA’s Chief of Staff. 

VA Inspector General found out that Wright Simpson instructed VA staff to designate Shulkin’s wife, Dr. Merle Bari, as an “invitational traveler.”  The ethics office denied the request stating that Bari didn’t have “sufficient government interest.”   Wright Simpson’s response was to personally get involved and tell the Ethics Official that Shulkin would receive an award while in Denmark.  This would change things and Bari would be allowed to go. 

As a form of proof of the award, Wright Simpson then altered an email, making it seem like a different person had set up a special recognition dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence in honor of the SECVA.”  Shulkin did not receive an award at any time during the 11-day trip.  Because of Wright Simpson’s false statements and alternation of an official record (Government email), she may have violated federal criminal statutes.  The matter has been referred to the Department of Justice for potential criminal prosecution. 

The IG report states that there is no evidence that Shulkin was aware of the false representations or alteration of official records.

Hours after the report, Leo Shane, a congressional reporter for Military Times tweeted this:

And although he could reimubirsing the travel expenses, Shulkin still accepted the Wimbledon tickets. These came from Victoria Gosling, who Shulkin met while she was the CEO of the 2016 Invictus Games that were held in Florida.  According to the IG report, Gosling gave Shulkin the tickets “to thank them for their personal support to me whilst I was CEO Invictus Games Orlando.” 

Government employees are not allowed to accept any gifts given because of their official position or if the gift comes from a prohibited source. Before taking the tickets, Shulkin did not get advice from ethics counsel.  It was only after he was informed in September of last year that the Washington Post was about to publish a story about the trip and tickets that he asked to get an expedited ethics review.

The only way to get around taking the tickets would be if Shulkin and his wife were friends with Gosling.  VA’s ethics official, again after the trip was over, came to the conclusion that Shulkin could take the tickets based on the “personal friendship” exception to the gift rule. When investigators were talking to Gosling, she couldn’t recall Bari’s first name. The conclusion of both the IG and VA’s ethics official is that Shulkin didn’t provide “evidence of a relationship between Dr. Bari and Ms. Gosling sufficient to meet the “personal friendship” exception.

The third problem coming from Shulkin’s travel is that he directed the misuse of a subordinate’s official time.  The entire trip was 11 days consisting of two days travel and three and a half days of meetings and an official reception one night.  For the down time, the IG report found that Shulkin directed a member of his staff to work with his wife to plan personal activities.  Emails uncovered in the investigation prove that a VA Program Specialist “made extensive use of official time for planning leisure activities.”  Basically, the Program Specialist acted as a personal travel agent for Shulkin and his wife.

Between Denmark and London, Shulkin and Bari visited Sweden, four palaces, three castles and a bunch of touristy places like the Globe Theater, London Eye and Tower Bridge. 

Next issue is all about money.  VA can’t be precise about the total cost of the trip because Shulkin failed to turn in the proper paperwork after the trip.  Even without this required paperwork, the IG found that “personal conveniences did impact the cost of the trip.”  The Secretary, his wife and other members of the party left Denmark earlier than scheduled so they could make the game at Wimbledon. 

The IG found that the early departure cost the Government an additional $2,105 in change fees and lodging costs.  Shulkin was not the only one running up costs on the trip.  Wright Simpson’s original roundtrip ticket cost taxpayers $1,101.  Her ticket was modified so there was s different connecting city and the change brought the total up to $4,041.  Another unexplained expense was $3,825 for parking and another charge of $2,718 for lodging.

The last issue is regarding misleading statements to the media.  The offending sentence was “All activities including Wimbledon were reviewed and approved by ethics counsel.” Shulkin denies having any part in drafting that up.  The problem is that John Ullyot, VA’s Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs, said that he met with Shulkin about a response to The Washington Post article and that Shulkin helped draft the response. 

Then, on Nov. 9, during an interview, Shulkin said that he paid for the Wimbledon tickets and that they were not a gift. 

The IG report ends with five recommendations.  First Shulkin should reimburse the VA for his wife’s travel costs.  Second, he needs to reimburse Ms. Gosling for the tennis tickets.  If she won’t take the money, then he needs to pay the US Treasury the amount.  Third is the appropriate actions – if any – for Wright Simpson and any other individuals associated with this trip.  Fourth, the VA needs to do a full travel and expense audit for all travelers on the trip and finally, VA needs to review and enhance the training provided to staff on travel planning, approvals and accepting gifts.