VETERANS AFFAIRS Secretary David Shulkin, who oversees an agency of some 375,000 workers and more than 1,200 health-care facilities, issued a directive last summer instructing managers to cut costs by limiting employee travel to “essential” trips. Not two weeks later, he undertook a taxpayer-financed boondoggle to London and Copenhagen in the company of his wife, top-ranking officials and a half-dozen security personnel — a 10-day trip that, in addition to a few meetings and a conference, featured several days of shopping, sightseeing jaunts through castles and palaces, a river cruise and freebie tickets to the women’s tennis finals at Wimbledon.
His European adventure, which cost the public at least $122,000, plainly violated the spirit of government rules and almost definitely the letter. Now, after months of arrogant, evasive and plainly dishonest statements from both Mr. Shulkin and VA employees seeking to justify the trip, followed by a government investigation that found “serious derelictions” involving the trip, the VA secretary has allowed that “the optics of this are not good.”
The “optics”? Try the facts, Mr. Shulkin.
“There’s nothing inappropriate about this,” Mr. Shulkin said last fall, after The Post reported that about half his trip involved sightseeing and shopping, and that the government had also paid the flights and a per-diem for his wife, Merle Bari. He dismissed the story as “poor reporting.” In fact, The Post account was accurate.
Mr. Shulkin doubled down on his dissembling by denying that the Wimbledon tickets had been given to him by organizers of the Invictus Games for wounded and disabled soldiers and veterans, which would violate government rules barring gifts to public officials. In an ethics review triggered by The Post report, he insisted the tickets had been presented legitimately — yes, by a top organizer of the Invictus Games — not because of his position but owing to his and his wife’s “personal friendship” with the organizer.
Yet when a government investigator reached the Invictus organizer, Victoria Gosling, she was unable to recall Ms. Bari’s name. Some “personal friendship.”
The basis on which Ms. Bari’s expenses on the trip were covered was also phony — an email, apparently doctored by Mr. Shulkin’s chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, VA’s third-ranking official, to make it appear that he would be receiving an award in Denmark. There was, in fact, no such award, but the assertion was adequate to justify his wife’s travel at government expense, according to the VA inspector general’s report.
Following these revelations, Ms. Simpson announced her retirement Friday. Mr. Shulkin said he would reimburse the government for his wife’s travel and would also write a check to the treasury for the Wimbledon tickets, which cost thousands of dollars on the secondary market.
Mr. Shulkin, the lone holdover from the Obama administration in President Trump’s Cabinet, was summoned by White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly for a talk on Thursday; he is now fighting to keep his job. If straight talk and transparency are essential qualifications, the optics are not good.
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