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

VA chief becomes latest member of Trump Cabinet in trouble for high-priced travel
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks Feb. 6 during a House Committee on Veterans Affairs hearing on veteran caregiver support. (Jacquelyn Martin / Associated Press)

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin, traveling on what he said was an "essential" trip to London and Copenhagen, improperly accepted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament and brought his wife at taxpayer expense, according to an inspector general's report released Wednesday.

The scathing report says Shulkin and several top staff members made false and misleading statements both to justify the $122,334 trip and to defend it afterward. 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.

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

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 in Europe on official business.

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"Any sightseeing by the secretary was incidental to the substance of the trip," they wrote in a response that was included in the report.

The leaders of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees issued a statement saying they were "disappointed by the details" in the report.

"We believe that public officials must be held to a higher standard, and whether intentional or not, misusing taxpayer dollars is unacceptable," they said.

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

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Three other Cabinet officers have come under fire for taking expensive flights on private or military planes.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke came under fire in the summer when he chartered a private jet to fly from Las Vegas to his Montana home, a flight that cost taxpayers more than $12,000. Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin took flak in August after he brought his wife to Fort Knox, Ky., where some U.S. gold reserves are stored and where they watched the total solar eclipse.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt has flown first class and billed the government $58,000 for his flights. On Wednesday, Pruitt said he had encounters with the public that were "not… the best" and said he needs to fly first class for security.

"We live in a very toxic environment politically, particularly around issues of the environment," Pruitt told the New Hampshire Union Leader newspaper. "We've reached the point where there's not much civility in the marketplace and it's created, you know, it's created some issues and the [security] detail, the level of protection is determined by the level of threat."

The report on Shulkin's trip by VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal says Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari, spent nine days in Europe, but business meetings only took 3½ days. Shulkin traveled with a six-person security detail as well as staff members.

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 pay for Shulkin's wife, 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, the report said. "Exactly what I needed," the lawyer wrote, and signed off on the ticket.

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

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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.

Twitter: @jtanfani

UPDATES:

1:20 p.m.: This story was updated with details from the inspector general's report.

This story was posted at 9:55 a.m.

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