Another VA scandal: IG reports Shulkin, chief of staff covered up misuse of funds, resources

Reset the counter for “number of days without a Veterans Administration scandal” to zero. At least this scandal didn’t result in dead veterans, but it should result in a housecleaning anyway. The inspector general reports that VA Secretary David Shulkin misused public funds to cover his wife’s travel to Europe, and his chief of staff doctored documents to cover it up:

Investigators determined Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets and airfare for his wife during a European trip last summer that ultimately cost taxpayers more than $122,000, according to a VA inspector general report released Wednesday.

His chief of staff, Viveca Wright Simpson, made false representations to a VA ethics lawyer and altered an official email to secure approval for taxpayer funding of Shulkin’s wife’s flights, which cost more than $4,000, the VA inspector general found.

Shulkin told ethics officials the tennis tickets were provided by a personal friend, Victoria Gosling, an adviser for the Invictus Games, a sporting event for wounded warriors. But the inspector general concluded that was not the case, they had only met three times at official events, and when interviewed by investigators, Gosling couldn’t remember his wife’s name.

The inspector general also found the excursion led to a “misuse of VA resources.” Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari, took the trip with three other VA executives and a six-member security detail ostensibly to attend meetings in Denmark and a summit on veterans’ affairs in London.

The full IG report notes that Shulkin had just lectured his staff on the meaning of “essential employee travel” shortly before his Wimbledon excursion:

To provide some relevant context, less than two weeks before the start of the trip, Secretary Shulkin issued a memorandum to all VA staff titled, Essential Employee Travel. The memorandum instructed staff that before approving any employee travel, managers must determine whether the travel is “essential” in order to decrease “employee travel and generate savings” within VA. It was in this climate that the VA delegation for the Europe trip included Dr. Merle Bari, the Secretary’s wife, who is a dermatologist in private practice; VA Chief of Staff Vivieca Wright Simpson; then Acting Under Secretary for Health Dr. Poonam Alaigh; and Program Specialist James (Gabe) Gough. Six members of the Secretary’s security detail also went on the trip, with several additional days of advance travel. A VA Ethics Official approved Dr. Bari as an “invitational traveler,” which authorized VA to pay her expenses. The trip cost VA at least $122,334.

How much of this ten-day trip related to official business? The IG provides this handy chart:

That’s roughly four days of official activity and four-plus-to-five days of “scheduled leisure,” to which we’ll return in a moment. Why the gap between the official activities? Originally, Shulkin planned the trip around the London Summit on July 19-20, a meeting of officials from the US and the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to discuss veterans-care issues. After committing to the event, Shulkin directed the VA to set up meetings in Denmark — but for a week earlier. The IG concludes that this was a pretext to get a taxpayer-covered vacation for both himself and his wife, who was only approved for the travel on the false representation from Wright Simpson that Shulkin would receive an “award” from the Danish government.

The tickets to Wimbledon are another matter. Shulkin told the IG that Victoria Gosling was a friend of his wife’s and therefore the issues of gift acceptance did not apply. When the IG finally tracked Gosling down, she couldn’t remember Bari’s name. An earlier review of this event concluded that Shulkin had not told the truth about it:

Secretary Shulkin told OIG investigators that he received tickets for the event from Ms. Victoria Gosling, whom he described as his wife’s friend. According to publicly available information, Ms. Gosling is a UK resident and Head of Social Impact at Auden, a for-profit enterprise; a Military Director at Sage Foundation, the philanthropic affiliate of UK software company Sage Group plc; and a Military Councillor for the Lawn Tennis Association, which is the national governing body for tennis in Great Britain, including Wimbledon. Ms. Gosling also served as CEO of the 2016 Invictus Games held in Orlando, Florida.3 Ms. Gosling not only provided the Wimbledon tickets, but she also hosted Secretary Shulkin, Dr. Bari, and their adult son for lunch before the match at the private members’ dining room at Wimbledon. …

During the course of the 26-minute interview, OIG investigators and Ms. Gosling referred to Dr. Bari only as Secretary Shulkin’s “wife.” Toward the end of the interview, OIG investigators asked whether Ms. Gosling could recall the first name of Secretary Shulkin’s wife. After a long pause, Ms. Gosling was unable to recall Dr. Bari’s name, stating, “You actually — I think that kept throwing me. I’m actually having a genuine blank here.” Ms. Gosling was unable to recall Dr. Bari’s name before the interview concluded.

Federal ethics rules prohibit the solicitation or acceptance of any gift given because of the employee’s official position or if the gift comes from a prohibited source, unless an exception applies.4 Before accepting the Wimbledon tickets, Secretary Shulkin did not seek an opinion from VA ethics counsel as to whether it was appropriate to accept the tickets as a gift. On September 28, 2017, after being notified of a pending Washington Post story about the trip and the Wimbledon tickets, Secretary Shulkin asked VA General Counsel James Byrne to seek an expedited ethics review of his acceptance of the tickets. To conduct the analysis, DAEO Kennedy sent Secretary Shulkin a series of written questions. In response, Secretary Shulkin wrote that Ms. Gosling was a friend of his wife and that “there is no business relationship, but purely a social friendship between the two of them.” Based on the responses to the questions, Ms. Kennedy opined that Secretary Shulkin could accept the tickets based on the “personal friendship” exception to the rule prohibiting the acceptance of gifts.

Let’s get back to all that “scheduled leisure” time on Shulkin’s calendar. Apparently, the two had quite an itinerary planned for their non-official hours. Guess who planned that out?

The OIG also determined that the Europe trip resulted in a misuse of VA resources. While the delegation spent nine full days in Europe, there were only three-and-a-half days of meetings in addition to a reception the evening before the start of the London Summit. Prior to the trip, Secretary Shulkin directed VA Program Specialist Gough to work with Dr. Bari to plan personal activities for the Secretary and Dr. Bari during the trip. Emails support the conclusion that Mr. Gough made extensive use of official time for planning leisure activities. Mr. Gough effectively acted as a personal travel concierge to the Secretary and Dr. Bari. …

The OIG was unable to determine the total amount of official time Mr. Gough spent planning these personal activities at the direction of Secretary Shulkin and Dr. Bari. However, it was clear from the extensive communications between Mr. Gough and Dr. Bari that he spent many hours attending to the personal aspects of the trip on their behalf that exceeded what was required to notify the security detail of their proposed movements. This was time that should have been spent conducting official VA business and not for providing personal travel concierge services to Secretary Shulkin and his wife.

The IG also concluded that the VA misled reporters about the nature of the trip and the gift of the tickets, insisting that everything had been cleared by “ethics counsel.” That will likely matter less to voters than the misuse of funds and resources, but it does establish that the cover-up went further than just Shulkin’s chief of staff.

The resources provided to the VA are supposed to be used for the care of veterans — not to provide wealthy Cabinet members and their spouses with free vacations and travel services. While it’s relatively easy to inadvertently cross lines on issues like gifts and personal time on travel, the attempts to cover it up by lying to investigators and altering documents show a motive to obstruct transparency and accountability. We’ve had far too much of that at the VA already in issues more directly related to care. Shulkin should have set an example of reform; instead, it looks a lot like the same old “swamp” that existed prior to his appointment as VA Secretary.

It’s not too late for Shulkin to be used as an example. President Trump should demand his resignation, and appoint someone who has real motivation on reform and a plan by which to accomplish it. Let’s make sure everyone at the VA knows that the days of business as usual are gone for good.