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VA chief becomes latest Trump Cabinet member in trouble for high-priced travel

Joseph Tanfani, Tribune Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, traveling on what he said was an "essential" trip to London and Copenhagen, improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets and brought along his wife at taxpayer expense, according to a scathing new inspector general's report.

The report says Shulkin and some top staff members made a number of false and misleading statements both to justify the $122,334 trip and in defending it afterwards. His chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, doctored an email to convince an agency ethics lawyer to approve a $4,300 flight for Shulkin's wife, the report found.

Another aide devoted "many hours" to arranging for tourist activities for Shulkin and his wife, the report found, "time that should have been spent conducting official VA business and not for providing personal travel concierge services."

Shulkin and his lawyers denounced the report as "one-sided" and said investigators bent the evidence "in an effort to manufacture violations where none exist." They said Shulkin spent the "vast majority" of his time on official business.

"Any sightseeing by the secretary was incidental to the substance of the trip," says the response, included in the report.

Shulkin becomes the latest Trump Cabinet member to run into trouble for improper travel expenses. Trump's first secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, resigned in September after revelations that he had spent at least $400,000 on private charter flights.

Three other members of the Cabinet have run into trouble for taking expensive flights on private or military planes, including Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, who spent $12,000 to charter a flight to his Montana home. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt billed the government for $58,000 in flights, and Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin took his wife along to a trip to Fort Knox, where they viewed the solar eclipse.

The report by VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal says Shulkin and his wife spent nine days in Europe, but business meetings only accounted for 3 1/2 days.

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The allegation of the falsified email is the most serious in the report. A VA ethics lawyer at first denied a request to have the agency pick up the expenses for Shulkin's wife, Merle Bari, but told Simpson, the chief of staff, that the agency could justify the expense under certain conditions -- such as if Shulkin were receiving an award.

Simpson then doctored an email from a staff member to make it read "we're having a special recognition dinner at the U.S. Ambassador's residence," and forwarded it to the ethics lawyer. "Exactly what I needed," the lawyer wrote, and signed off on the ticket.

In fact, Shulkin never got any award during the trip, the report says. Missal referred the doctored email to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution, but the department declined.

The report says the Wimbledon tickets were an improper gift from a British businesswoman who was involved with a charity event supported by the VA. Shulkin says the gift was appropriate because they were personal friends and that the woman had no business with the VA.

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