The Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General (OIG) released a report February 14 concluding that VA Secretary David J. Shulkin’s went on an extravagant taxpayer funded European trip, while his chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, altered official agency emails to facilitate him improperly taking his wife – at taxpayer expense.
On April 2017, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Shulkin accepted an invitation to attend the Ministerial Summit on Veterans’ Affairs in London in July.
The London Summit had events scheduled for one night and two days. After accepting the invitation, Secretary Shulkin asked his staff to arrange a visit to Copenhagen, Denmark.
During their 10 day trip, the VA paid more than $122,000, according to the OIG report. The trip included 11 people, and the VA paid thousands of dollars for Shulkin’s wife, dermatologist Merle Bari, to join him. VA Chief of Staff Wright Simpson also went on the trip.
It was as much, or more, tourism and leisure, then official business, the OIG report demonstrated.
It noted that in London, Shulkin, his wife, and his VA delegation toured Kensington Palace, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Churchill War Rooms, a Thames River cruise; St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe, London Eye, and Windsor Castle.
Secretary Shulkin and wife also attended the Ladies’ Final tennis match at Wimbledon.
The Denmark portion of their trip included touring Amalienborg Palace, Christiansborg Palace, Rosenborg Castle, Frederiksborg Castle; taking a boat tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn Canal; shopping in Copenhagen, and an excursion across the border to Malmo, Sweden for dinner.
The most suspicious part of the trip, however, concerned how Shulkin’s wife got a taxpayer funded airline ticket.
A VA Ethics Official approved Dr. Bari as an “invitational traveler,” which authorized the VA to pay her expenses. But the OIG found that Chief of Staff Wright Simpson deceived the VA Designated Agency Ethics Official, Tammy Kennedy. Wright Simpson falsely represented to Kennedy that Secretary Shulkin would receive an award while in Denmark, which would qualify Dr. Bari’s travel at VA expense.
Wright Simpson altered an email, making it [falsely] appear that Shulkin would be honored at the US Ambassador’s Residence.
The “VA’s chief of staff made false representations to a VA ethics official and altered an official record, resulting in VA improperly paying for Dr. Bari’s air travel,” the report states.
Based on the altered email, and Wright Simpson’s oral representations, Kennedy approved Dr. Bari as an invitational traveler and VA paid more than $4,000 for her airline ticket. Secretary Shulkin did not receive any award during his European trip.
Since Wright Simpson’s false representations and alteration of an official record may have violated federal criminal statutes, the OIG referred the matter to the US Department of Justice to consider for potential criminal prosecution. DOJ decided not to prosecute.
Ironically, less than two weeks before the European trip, Shulkin issued a memo titled Essential Employee Travel – to VA staff. The memo announced restrictions on nonessential travel to decrease “employee travel and generate savings” within the VA.
Investigators said they found no evidence that Shulkin was aware of his chief of staff’s “false representations or alteration of official records.”
The Department of Veterans Affairs says Wright Simpson resigned following the report. Shulkin said he would pay back the more than $4,000 for his wife’s airfare.
A word to the wise: While vacations are fun at taxpayer expense, don’t try this yourself, if you are not a politically connected individual.