Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin’s chief of staff has decided to retire, the department announced Friday, following the release of an unsparing report that said she misled officials to obtain approval for the secretary’s wife to join him on a taxpayer-funded trip to Europe.
In the latest turmoil to beset the troubled agency, Vivieca Wright Simpson told colleagues earlier in the day about her plans to leave the agency after 32 years, according to two people familiar with her decision who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive personnel matters.
Simpson, the third-highest-ranking employee at the agency and Shulkin’s most senior aide, did not reply to requests for comment.
“She called me this morning and told me she doesn’t want to be in this environment anymore,” Shulkin told Military Times on Friday of his chief of staff leaving her post.
At 7 p.m. Friday, the, VA announced that Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Executive Director Peter O’Rourke will now serve as VA’s permanent chief of staff, “ensuring that the department works closely with the White House going forward,” the Va said in a statement.
It was another sign that the White House is seeking increasing influence inside the agency.
The VA inspector general recommended in a report this week that Simpson be disciplined for doctoring an email to an ethics lawyer to imply that the secretary was getting an award during the trip to Denmark and London last year, which would have allowed for his wife’s travel to be covered at taxpayers’ expense.
VA said it has opened a formal investigation into Simpson’s actions described in the inspector general’s report.
“President Trump has made clear that he expects VA leaders to hold themselves and other employees accountable when they fail to live up to the high standards taxpayers and Veterans deserve,” VA press secretary Curt Cashour said in a statement.
Shulkin has promised to repay the cost of his wife’s travel and said that he intends to continue serving as VA secretary, overseeing the massive government health-care system that serves more than 9 million veterans.
He also said he is seeking to reimburse a British veterans advocate for Wimbledon tickets.
On Thursday, Shulkin faced questions from House lawmakers about the 10-day trip to Europe, which included stops in Copenhagen and London, and cost taxpayers at least $122,334. He acknowledged to the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee that “the optics of this are not good.”
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) has called on Shulkin to resign, saying, “It’s not the optics that aren’t good — it’s the facts.”
The VA secretary has danced between defiance and remorse since the investigation’s release, hiring a team of lawyers to discredit the findings and a public relations firm to help manage the crisis.
The trip became the focus of an investigation last year after The Washington Post revealed that the government paid for Shulkin’s wife to join him.
Lisa Rein contributed to this report.