VA’s IG reports Secretary Shulkin wrongly accepts Wimbledon tickets

"Hey look kids, there's Big Ben, and there's Parliament... again."

Jonathan Kaupanger
February 13, 2018 - 10:27 am

Photo by Olivier Douliery

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The VA’s Inspector General has come out against the agency head, Secretary David J. Shulkin, regarding his trip to Denmark and the UK last summer.  The focus of the investigation is the few days the secretary spent in London with his wife during their 10-day trip.

The IG report hasn’t been released yet – it could come out this week, but USA Today managed to get a copy of the rebuttal letter from Shulkin’s lawyers.  The lawyers, of course, are saying the investigation was biased against Shulkin and that the report is unfair and inaccurate.

The official side of the trip consisted of meetings in Denmark from July 12 to 14 and then a conference on veterans’ issues in London, which took place from July 18 to 20.  The issue at hand are the four days in-between the two official meetings. During this time, Shulkin and his wife played tourist and saw two palaces: Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, did a Thames River cruise and had dinner in Piccadilly Circus.

According to USA Today, the IG found four major problems with the Shulkin’s mini-vacation while in London.  First, the trip might actually be going against a cost-savings directive that Shulkin actually implemented for VA leaders, just before the trip.  Basically, the trip may not qualify as “essential travel.”  Then, there’s the problem with tax payers picking up the travel check for Shulkin’s wife, Dr. Merle Bari. 

“There was no taxpayer dollars associated with it,” Shulkin was reported saying in a USA Today article back in October.  He also said that Dr. Bari’s coach airfare had been approved by the VA’s ethics office.  It looks like the IG report will take the opposite view, that not only should the airfare not have been approved, but that the amount of free time during the trip was not the best use of taxpayer money. 

The other two sticky points are that it looks like the Secretary used VA staff on official time to arrange personal sightseeing trips. And then there’s the Wimbledon tickets. 

Government employees have very strict rules when it comes to accepting gifts.  Civil Servants can accept a gift, as long as it’s valued at $20 or less and there’s a calendar year limit total of $50 from the same person.  I can’t say exactly how much the tickets cost that they were given, but a search for Wimbledon tickets today gives a range of $953 to $2,763. 

It’s a bit over the limit.

The tickets were a gift from a person, Victoria Gosling, who works with the Invictus Games UK, which is a sporting event for wounded warriors.  The Shulkin’s met Gosling during an event in the States. Gosling didn’t have official business with the VA and gave the couple the tickets only after she found out her sister couldn’t attend the tennis match.  On its own, this wouldn’t raise eyebrows.  Friends can give friends who happen to be government employees gifts. Only during an interview with investigators, Gosling forgot Bari’s name.

Shulkin’s European vacation is just one part of the Trump Administration Cabinet level travel drama. Tom Price resigned from Health and Human Services after he spent at least $400k of tax money on chartered flights. Department of the Interior’s IG opened an investigation last year into Secretary Ryan Zinke’s travel. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had yet another IG investigation on his travel and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is still under investigation.

These investigations and the reporting done on his trip caused the VA to create a new website that lists all the official travel taken by the Secretary. This site not only lists the trips, but who accompanies the secretary and itineraries are included as well.

Shulkin's lawyers say he did nothing improper. A department spokesman says Shulkin "travels far less than any recent VA secretary" and takes no private jets.