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Watchdog’s report faults VA chief over Europe trip expenses

By HOPE YEN, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tennis tickets and his staff made “false representations” to justify his wife accompanying him at taxpayer expense on an 11-day European trip that mixed business and sightseeing, according to an internal investigation.

The report released Wednesday said Shulkin should reimburse the government more than $4,000, and it added to the weight of controversies involving expensive or wasteful plane travel by top administration officials. President Donald Trump’s health secretary, Tom Price, resigned in September after questions arose about his use of private jets for multiple government trips.

Shulkin’s overseas trip may have involved too much leisure time at taxpayers’ expense, according to the report by the agency’s internal watchdog. It found that VA ethics officials should not have approved the commercial airfare for Shulkin’s wife, Merle Bari, and they did so only after a staffer misrepresented the trip to justify her traveling on the public’s dime.
The audit by VA inspector general Michael Missal also questioned Shulkin’s decision to use agency staff on official time to arrange his personal sightseeing activities.

The trip to England and Denmark last July included a tour of Westminster Abbey, attendance at the women’s final at Wimbledon featuring American Venus Williams and a cruise on the Thames River.

Citing the improper acceptance of expenses, Missal called on Shulkin to reimburse $4,312 paid by the Department of Veterans Affairs for Bari’s travel costs as well as the price of the Wimbledon tickets. He received the seats as a gift from a professional acquaintance.

Shulkin’s lawyers said he did nothing improper and that the audit was unfair.

A VA spokesman, Curt Cashour, said Shulkin “travels far less than any recent VA secretary, takes no private jets, and is the only Cabinet secretary to post details of his travel online for all to see.”

The VA inspector general began a review in October after The Washington Post reported that Shulkin and his wife had spent nearly half their time on personal activities during the European trip. The VA said the two flew commercially, and the taxpayers covered her airfare as part of “temporary duty” travel expenses.

But the audit said Bari’s airfare was approved only after Shulkin’s chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, intervened and misrepresented that the secretary would receive an award in Denmark. It said the trip may have violated an agency cost-saving directive from Shulkin weeks before the trip.

Shulkin told investigators that he accepted the Wimbledon tickets from Victoria Gosling, a former CEO of the 2016 Invictus Games, whom he described as his wife’s friend, after being unable to buy tickets himself. But the inspector general’s office reported that Gosling could not recall the name of Shulkin’s wife.

Shulkin’s lawyers said the trip was an important chance to discuss “best practices” with U.S. allies for veterans’ health care. The lawyers said Shulkin and his wife took appropriate advantage of “down time” between business meetings and bought their own tickets to local attractions.

Shulkin, a former undersecretary for health under the Obama administration, insisted that he had planned to pay for his wife’s airfare but considered the VA reimbursement only after staff suggested the idea.

The travel involved trips to Denmark and then England, separated by four days including a weekend during which Shulkin and his wife did sightseeing. According to VA, it was unclear whether scheduling two separate trans-Atlantic trips to avoid the four-day gap between work-related events would have saved money.

After the newspaper report last September, the VA began posting Shulkin’s travel itineraries and any use of private or government aircraft.

Shulkin isn’t the only Cabinet member to have faced questions about travel since Price resigned.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Environmental Protection Administration head Scott Pruitt have acknowledged the use of government or private flights at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Zinke and Pruitt are being investigated by agency watchdogs for their trips, which they said ethics officials approved. Perry has made the same case.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin was investigated for use of government aircraft for official trips. A Treasury audit last October said he failed to provide enough proof of why he needed to use more expensive modes of travel but there was no violation of law.
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