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VA chief took in Wimbledon, river cruise on European work trip; wife’s expenses covered by taxpayers

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 31: Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin speaks to reporters and members of the media during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC on Wednesday, May 31, 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Nearly three days into a trip to Europe this past July, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin had attended a Wimbledon championship tennis match, toured Westminster Abbey and taken a cruise on the Thames.

The 10-day trip was not entirely a vacation. Shulkin was in Europe for meetings with Danish and British officials about veterans’ health issues, so taxpayers picked up part of the tab.

Yet he and his wife spent about half their time sightseeing, including shopping and touring historic sites, according to an itinerary obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed by a U.S. official familiar with their activities.

The federal government paid for the flights for Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari, and provided a per-diem reimbursement for their meals and other expenses, VA said Friday. An agency spokesman did not respond to questions about why Bari qualified for the reimbursements and taxpayer-funded airfare, other than to say she was traveling on “approved invitational orders” and had “temporary duty” travel expenses.

The agency also did not respond to questions about the cost of the flights and the total reimbursement. If Bari took the full per diem every day of the trip, she could have been reimbursed as much as $3,600 under federal guidelines.

Trump administration Cabinet members have faced mounting scrutiny over their use of private and government jets in recent days, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned Friday amid criticism of his use of taxpayer-funded charter flights. Shulkin traveled on a commercial flight, though, and he was seated in coach on at least one leg.

The European visit, however, puts a focus on the mixing of business and leisure during these trips, which can come at considerable taxpayer expense. Shulkin’s immediate predecessor, Robert McDonald, took no foreign work trips, according to a former VA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Shulkin’s six-person traveling party included his acting undersecretary of health and her husband, Shulkin’s chief of staff and another aide, the itinerary says. They were accompanied by a security detail of as many as six people.

Shulkin’s trip came less than two weeks after he signed a memo instructing top VA staffers to determine whether “employee travel in their organization is essential.”

"I expect this will result in decreased employee travel and generate savings within the Department of Veterans Affairs," Shulkin wrote.

In response to questions from The Post, VA announced Friday that the agency will begin posting details of the secretary’s travel online, including itineraries, and disclosing any use of government or private aircraft. That information had not previously been disclosed publicly.

All of Shulkin’s activities on the European trip, including his attendance at Wimbledon, “were reviewed and approved by ethics counsel,” VA press secretary Curt Cashour said in an emailed statement.

“These were important trips with our allies to discuss best practices for taking care of veterans,” Cashour said. “The secretary has been transparent on his down-time activities that were similar to what he would have done with his family over a weekend in the U.S.”

Cashour said the husband of Poonam Alaigh, the acting undersecretary for health, paid his own expenses.

In an interview Friday, Alaigh defended the trip as a “tremendous and valuable exchange of ideas” with British and Danish counterparts.

“Were there some breaks we got? Sure,” she said. “But they were reasonable. They were not at the expense of what we had committed to do: representing our country and showing our commitment to veterans.”

Alaigh said the delegation took an unplanned trip across the border to Sweden one evening.

Senior members of Congress, including two key Republicans, have expressed concerns about travel by officials in President Trump's Cabinet. The leaders of the House Oversight Committee, Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), wrote to the White House this week to demand records on air travel for executive officials since Trump's inauguration, saying that official travel "by no means should include personal use."

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, also wrote Trump a letter Thursday asking what steps the administration has taken to “ensure Cabinet secretaries use the most fiscally responsible travel in accordance with the public trust they hold.”

One ethics expert said the trip sends the wrong message to taxpayers, especially if spouses’ expenses were paid by the government.

“That’s kind of a long trip for the secretary to be gone,” said Walter M. Shaub Jr., a vocal critic of the Trump administration who resigned in July as the federal government's top ethics watchdog. “The cost has got to be extravagant.”

Shulkin was invited to attend a July 19 conference in London to discuss veterans’ mental health issues with representatives of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In past years, the VA secretary has attended the conference.

He also arranged to attend meetings in Denmark from July 12 to 14. Officials in Denmark said VA officials approached them about the meetings.

The bookend events left Shulkin with four days in between, according to his itinerary. He attended a ceremony one of those nights at which a British veteran of the war in Afghanistan was honored, and a meeting the next night at the British prime minister’s residence.

Over the course of the trip, Shulkin and his entourage visited four palaces — Copenhagen’s Christiansborg and Amalienborg and London’s Buckingham and Kensington — and included times for walks, self-guided tours and photo stops.

On one calendar item, a canal tour of Copenhagen, the itinerary specifically noted the group “Will See Little Mermaid Statue,” one of the city’s most iconic public artworks. During the London visit, Shulkin and his wife shared a meal at a restaurant overlooking a tennis court with Victoria Gosling, a British leader of the Invictus Games, a sports tournament for wounded veterans. Gosling posted a photo of the gathering on Twitter.

“Great honour and a pleasure to host US Secretary of the VA and his lovely family,” Gosling wrote.

The Wimbledon event was one of the prized moments of the tennis year: In the women’s final, American Venus Williams would lose her chance at a sixth title to Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza.

Members of President Trump's Cabinet have taken noncommercial flights at the expense of taxpayers, and Trump says he's "not happy." (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

It is not clear whether the London invitation came before or after the scheduling of the events in Copenhagen, which included speaking with several Danish health-care executives at a luncheon organized by a Danish business group. A spokesman for one company in attendance, Leo Pharma, said the executives were asked by the Danish Foreign Affairs Ministry to attend.

In any event, the Copenhagen meetings occurred at a time the business group said was inconvenient, because it was a holiday period for Danes.

“It was quite difficult for us to accommodate,” said Kasper Ernest, a director at the Confederation of Danish Enterprise, noting that his group’s chief executive could not attend. “I was also on holiday.”

Shulkin’s relationship with Danish government leaders has grown over the past year, Danish officials said, and Denmark’s military had been heavily involved in the war in Afghanistan.

In a statement, the Danish Embassy in Washington said it has had “a close dialogue with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for a couple of years based on the long-standing partnership between Denmark and the USA on global conflicts. Over this period, there has been a standing invitation to visit Denmark.”