A report released by the Veteran Affairs Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin's chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, fabricated an email so that the VA chief's wife, Merle Bari, could go to Europe with him and be reimbursed by the government. Now at least one Republican lawmaker is calling for the Trump Cabinet member to step down.
As the IG's report notes, federal ethics rules forbid the acceptance of any gift because of an official’s position, unless an exception applies. The report found Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets in 2017.
The corruption revealed by the IG doesn’t only lie in Shulkin’s wrongdoings but also in the actions by his chief of staff and the attempt to cover up the lie.
According to the report, the “Chief of Staff made false representations to a VA Ethics official and altered an official record, resulting in VA improperly laying for Dr. Bari’s air travel”—which was more than $4,000. The fabrication happened in an email exchange between a program specialist and Simpson, and made it look like Shulkin was going to receive an award in Denmark to VA Designated Agency Ethics Official (DAEO) Tammy Kennedy.
“The OIG found that in order to obtain a favorable decision, Ms. Wright Simpson falsely represented to DAEO Kennedy that Secretary Shulkin would receive an award while in Denmark, which Ms. Wright Simpson understood to be the criterion that would justify Dr. Bari’s travel at VA expense,” the report explains.
The VA’s Office of Inspector General launched the investigation after receiving an anonymous tip alleging a misuse of the funds. The estimated total cost of the trip was $122,334 for all who attended the 11-day excursion last summer.
“Although the [inspector general’s office] cannot determine the value VA 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 VA personnel,” the report concluded.
Shulkin spoke to USA Today on Feb. 14 and expressed regret. He also said he mailed a check for $4,312 to reimburse the government and will reimburse Gosling for the Wimbledon tickets.
This is a sudden change in attitude when compared to his response to a report in The Washington Post that first raised questions about Shulkin’s trip in September 2017 when he called the allegations “outrageous.”
“It is outrageous that you would portray my wife and me as attempting to take advantage of the government,” he said in a response.
For one Republican lawmaker, Shulkin's explanation is too little, too late.
"He's really part of the culture of corruption that too often defines this organization. I just don't think that he has the moral authority to clean it up," Colorado Republican Mike Coffman said in a statement. Coffman, a veteran who chairs the House Veterans Affairs Committee, added that he is "deeply offended."
Inspector generals investigating the misuse of pricey travel funds appear to be a common story as of late. Scott Pruitt of the Environmental Protection Agency is also facing criticism of his travel habits, which are under investigation by the agency’s inspector general. Pruitt reportedly spent $90,000 on travel in June. Recall, last September Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned after scrutiny ensued over his use of private jets for business trips.