So much for cleaning up the swamp — and for that matter, Congressional oversight on it. A day after the VA’s inspector general detailed misuse of public resources and efforts to manipulate records to cover it up by David Shulkin and his office, the House Veteran Affairs Committee shrugged it off as “bad optics.” In a hearing, some of the lawmakers hailed the “trust” they have in Shulkin rather than ask tough questions as to whether it is warranted:
At a hearing on the administration’s $198 billion VA budget proposal, members on both sides tut-tutted over the $122,000 cost of the trip but treated it as a distraction that they urged Shulkin to clear away so he could deal with substantial problems like paying for veterans care by community providers, EHR modernization, unused VA assets and streamlining benefit appeals.
“I believe your intentions to serve and care for our nation’s veterans are clear,” Chairman Phil Roe said in an opening statement. “I encourage you to take every step to address the findings of this report, and to make any changes necessary.”
“Trust on this committee is strong,” added ranking member Tim Walz. He said he was prepared to ask the Department of Justice to examine allegations Shulkin raised in a POLITICO interview that a hacker might have sent an email from his chief of staff that altered information about the purpose of his visit.
A hacker? Shulkin emphasized the point with reporters after the hearing, insisting that he won’t resign:
“No,” Shulkin told reporters when asked if he has considered resigning. “Listen, I came here, I left a very good career in the private sector for one reason, and that’s because I believe so strongly that our veterans deserve better care. I’m going to stay focused on that as long as I’m here to make sure that we’re doing that every day. I’m not going to be distracted by issues like that.”
He also doubled down on allegations that the aide’s email was hacked and said the department will investigate if the doctored email was among those that were hacked.
Shulkin was speaking to reporters after a largely genial House Veterans Affairs Committee in which he acknowledged “the optics of this are not good.”
Let’s run this hacker theory out to its conclusion, shall we? The IG alleges that Shulkin’s chief of staff, Viveca Wright Simpson, falsely gained approval for paying travel costs for the wife of the VA Secretary by altering an e-mail she had received and forwarding it to an ethics officer. The OIG also accused her of lying about this sequence of events to cover up her actions, which resulted in a criminal referral to the Department of Justice. Here is the specific allegation in the IG report about the e-mails, alterations, and their impact on the approval process:
The OIG found that in April 2017 Chief of Staff Wright Simpson instructed staff to seek approval from VA ethics officials for Dr. Bari to be designated as an “invitational traveler.” This would have authorized VA to pay her expenses on the trip. VA ethics officials initially declined to approve Dr. Bari as an invitational traveler on the grounds that the available information did not show that her presence would serve a “sufficient government interest.” In response, Ms. Wright Simpson became personally involved and communicated directly with 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.2 When Ms. Kennedy asked for additional information about the award that Ms. Wright Simpson told her would be presented to Secretary Shulkin, the following emails were exchanged:
- Ms. Wright Simpson to Program Specialist Gough: “Hey, when at the event in Denmark, will Dr. Shulkin be receiving an award or special recognition[?]”
- Mr. Gough immediately replied: “Not that I’m aware of. However, all of the planning is still in draft phase, and has not been finalized by Denmark.”
- Four minutes later, Mr. Gough sent another email to Ms. Wright Simpson: “We’re working on having a dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence in honor of SECVA, but that has not been confirmed by US Embassy Copenhagen yet.”
- Ms. Wright Simpson then altered this second email, making it appear that Mr. Gough wrote: “We’re having a special recognition dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence in the honor of SECVA.”
- Ms. Wright Simpson then forwarded the altered email to Ms. Kennedy with a note: “Let me know if you need more.”
- Ms. Kennedy emailed in response: “Vivieca – This is exactly what I needed. Thanks. I am in the middle of drafting an e-mail which addresses the below and should serve as an approval to proceed.”
The OIG found no evidence that Secretary Shulkin was aware of Ms. Wright Simpson’s false representations or alteration of official records. Based on this email exchange and Ms. Wright Simpson’s prior oral representation that Secretary Shulkin would be receiving an award, Ms. Kennedy approved Dr. Bari as an invitational traveler and VA paid more than $4,000 for her airline ticket. Ms. Kennedy told OIG investigators that she would not have approved the expense reimbursement for Dr. Bari if she had been informed that Secretary Shulkin was not getting an award. Secretary Shulkin did not receive an award or special recognition during this Europe trip. Dr. Bari also did not qualify for VA travel expense reimbursement under any other allowable criteria.
Since Ms. Wright Simpson’s false representations and alteration of an official record may have violated federal criminal statutes, the OIG referred this specific matter to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to consider it for potential criminal prosecution; DOJ decided not to prosecute at this time.
Soooo … Shulkin wants us to believe that the VA’s chief of staff got hacked, and hacker’s sole intention was to gain approval for Shulkin’s wife’s travel? It can’t be that the hacker only intended to frame Wright Simpson, because absent the change, Wright Simpson would have had no reason to forward the e-mail to Kennedy at all. Furthermore, the supposed “hack” matches what Wright Simpson told Kennedy in oral communication at the same time. Did the hacker gain access to Wright Simpson’s mouth too?
Besides this, what else did this mysterious hacker do? Did he arrange all of the leisure-time scheduling for Shulkin and his wife too, which the OIG reports was done by VA personnel? Send out the request to add Denmark as a destination for no particular purpose but to extend the trip at taxpayer expense?
This is an absurd explanation. It wasn’t me … it was the one-memoed hacker! And at least one committee member called out the nonsense. Mike Coffman (R-CO) had already called for Shulkin to step down, and says this explanation didn’t help matters:
After the hearing, Coffman, a member of the Veterans Affairs Committee, called the hacking claim “amazing to me.”
“He’s been all over the place,” Coffman said of Shulkin’s response to the report. “It is a moving target.”
Coffman also said Shulkin’s answers to the committee did not satisfy him and that he still wants to see Shulkin go.
“He should have been forthright and said, ‘I made a mistake,’” Coffman told reporters. “I think that there’s a culture of corruption at the Department of Veterans Affairs. I just don’t think he’s the one to clean it up.”
That’s exactly correct. The Office of Inspector General has done its job, but the House Veterans Affairs Committee seems uninterested in doing theirs. Perhaps their Senate counterparts will take more of an interest in Shulkin’s nonsensical explanation because this goes beyond optics. If not, Donald Trump should clean the swamp himself.