VA secretary criticized on Capitol Hill for travel decisions
Members of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs criticized the agency’s Secretary David Shulkin during a budget hearing Thursday, a day after a blistering report released by the VA Office of the Inspector General alleged Shulkin improperly accepted a gift of Wimbledon tickets during a work trip to Europe last summer during which he spent the majority of the trip sightseeing.
Chairman of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs Dr. Phil Roe, R.-Tenn., said he was “disappointed in the allegations raised by the report” and said he had instructed his staff to request additional documentation from the Inspector General.
The 11-day trip to Copenhagen and London cost taxpayers at least $122,334, the report said. It also alleged that Shulkin’s chief of staff altered a document and misrepresented information to ethics officials that ultimately caused his wife’s airfare to be covered by taxpayer dollars.
“I’ve gotten to know you well over the last year, actually two years, and I believe your intentions to serve and care for our nation’s veterans are well clear. You have that mission at heart,” Dr. Roe said. “With that said, as public officials we are all expected to be held to a higher standard and be good stewards of tax dollars. I encourage you to take every step to address the findings of this report and make any changes necessary. We’ve got a lot of work to do on behalf of our nation’s veterans and we cannot allow distractions like these keep us from doing our work.”
“I do regret the decisions that have been made that have taken the focus off that important work,” Secretary Shulkin said in response. “To keep the attention focused on the important things, that I’ve made the decision to reimburse the treasury to follow the IG recommendations and I’m committed to doing what we have to do to focus on veterans and make this better.”
Hours after the report was released yesterday, Shulkin’s attorneys confirmed to ABC News that he had sent a check to the Treasury Department, reimbursing the government for his wife’s airfare and the Wimbledon tickets.
The harshest criticism today came from Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colorado, who read the definition of essential employee travel as defined by the VA Inspector General, and asked Shulkin if his travel met that criteria. Shulkin defended the trip, citing the importance of the conference in London, attended by allies like Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
He did not mention his leisure activities, which took up more than half his travel time over about a week, but did go on to say “I do recognize the optics of this are not good. I accept responsibility for that.”
Coffman retorted: “It’s not the optics that are not good, it’s the facts that are not good. I yield back.”
Yesterday, Coffman called for Shulkin to resign in a tweet, saying it is “exactly corruption and abuses like this that doesn’t help our veterans.”
Yesterday, Shulkin released a critical response to the report, calling it “a direct assault on my spouse, my character and my unblemished record of service.”
“If you had properly considered my testimony and recognition of the facts of this case, however, I am confident that you would have concluded that I have conducted myself properly, ethically and in line with how I have always served the Veterans Administration,” he said.
In a thorough 16-page letter responding to the investigation, Shulkin’s lawyers raised “grave concerns” with the IG report, urging the IG not to release it in its current form without significant revisions.
“Your report presents a one-sided account of the circumstances surrounding the Secretary’s trip to Europe. It omits critical facts and pieces of evidence that contradict your chosen narrative and that make clear the Secretary has done nothing wrong,” the letter states, adding, “Your investigators have relied on interrogation techniques that have long since been recognized as unfair, unreliable, and abusive.”