The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Veterans Affairs chief Shulkin, staff misled ethics officials about European trip, report finds

Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) on Feb. 15 asked Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin about his taxpayer-funded travel to Europe in 2017. (Video: House Veterans' Affairs Committee)

Veterans Affairs Secretary ­David J. Shulkin’s chief of staff doctored an email and made false statements to create a pretext for taxpayers to cover expenses for the secretary’s wife on a 10-day trip to Europe last summer, the agency’s inspector general has found.

Vivieca Wright Simpson, VA’s third-most-senior official, altered language in an email from an aide coordinating the trip to make it appear that Shulkin was receiving an award from the Danish government, then used the award to justify paying for his wife’s travel, Inspector General Michael J. Missal said in a report released Wednesday. VA paid more than $4,300 for her airfare.

The account of how the government paid travel expenses for the secretary’s wife is one finding in an unsparing investigation that concluded that Shulkin and his staff misled agency ethics officials and the public about key details of the trip. Shulkin also improperly accepted a gift of sought-after tickets to a Wimbledon tennis match, the investigation found, and directed an aide to act as what the report called a “personal travel concierge” to him and his wife.

“Although the [inspector general’s office] cannot determine the value VA gained from the Secretary and his delegation’s three and a half days of meetings in Copenhagen and London at a cost of at least $122,334, the investigation revealed serious derelictions by VA personnel,” the watchdog concluded.

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)

Shulkin is one of five current and former Trump administration Cabinet members under investigation by agency inspectors general over travel expenses, an issue that forced Tom Price to resign as health and human services secretary in the fall. Shulkin and other Cabinet officials have said their travel, often on private and military planes or to speak at political events, was approved by agency ethics officials.

The Washington Post first raised questions about Shulkin’s Europe trip — in particular the Wimbledon tickets and his wife’s expenses — in a report in September.

Shulkin wrote a check Wednesday to reimburse the government for the cost of his wife’s travel, his attorneys said, and he intends to repay the cost of the tennis tickets.

In his formal response to Missal, Shulkin wrote that VA staffers suggested his wife’s travel be paid for by the agency. He called the inspector general’s portrayal of the trip “entirely inaccurate” and said it “reeks of an agenda.”

“It is outrageous that you would portray my wife and me as attempting to take advantage of the government,” he wrote.

In an interview with investigators, Wright Simpson said she did not recall whether she altered the email, Missal wrote. In a second interview, he wrote, she did not directly respond to questions about the email, repeatedly saying, “I responded appropriately to the email.”

Wright Simpson said in a statement Wednesday that she stood by her 35 years of government work and complained that she was not given an opportunity to review the report before its release. “I look forward to inserting facts into the record so it may reflect truth and accuracy and illuminate any further confusion or misrepresentation,” she wrote.

Shulkin, a physician and former hospital administrator who served as VA’s undersecretary of health from July 2015 until January 2017, is the administration’s lone holdover from the Obama administration. He leads the second-largest federal agency and is a favorite of President Trump, who made improving care for veterans a centerpiece of his campaign.

Leaders of the House and Senate committees that oversee VA said they were still reviewing the report but were “disappointed” by the actions it describes. “We’re counting on Dr. Shulkin to actively address all of the allegations outlined in this report,” said the statement signed by Sens. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) and Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Reps. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.).

On the trip to Europe last July, Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari, were accompanied by Wright Simpson and Poonam Alaigh, then the acting undersecretary of health, as well as an aide and a six-person security detail. The group spent 3½ days meeting with Danish and British officials to discuss veterans’ health issues. Sightseeing occupied the other days, including tours of Westminster Abbey and Denmark’s Rosenborg Castle, a cruise along the Thames and shopping in Sweden.

VA chief took in Wimbledon, river cruise on European work trip

In September, in response to The Post’s questions about the trip, VA issued a statement that said “all of Shulkin’s activities on the Europe trip, including his attendance at Wimbledon, were reviewed and approved by ethics counsel.”

That statement was not accurate, Missal found.

Before the trip, ethics officials reviewed only whether VA could pay Bari’s expenses, Missal found. After The Post’s inquiries, Shulkin asked for an expedited ethics review of the gift of Wimbledon tickets. When The Post story was published, ethics officials complained internally that VA’s statement had misrepresented their role and cast them in a poor light, Missal wrote.

John Ullyot, VA’s assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs, told investigators that Shulkin dictated the language saying that all of his activities on the trip were reviewed, Missal wrote. Shulkin told investigators he had “no idea” where the statement originated.

In a separate response to Missal, Shulkin’s attorneys wrote that “to the extent the statement could have been drafted more clearly, it is apparent that the statement was the result of haste, not an intentional effort to mislead.”

At a Washington Post Live event in November, where he rebuked The Post for what he called “poor reporting,” Shulkin said he had purchased the Wimbledon tickets, Missal wrote. Asked by a moderator whether they were given to him “by folks from the Invictus Games or anything like that,” Shulkin said they were not.

That statement also was not accurate, Missal found.

VA chief says taxpayers didn’t pick up wife’s Europe expenses

As he planned the trip, Shulkin contacted Victoria Gosling, chief executive for the 2016 Invictus Games, a sports tournament for wounded veterans founded by Prince Harry. Gosling was a strategic adviser to the games at the time, according to the report.

Missal wrote that Gosling offered Shulkin two tickets and a grounds pass to the July 15 women’s tennis final at Wimbledon, where American Venus Williams later lost her chance at a sixth title to Spain’s Garbiñe Muguruza. Gosling also treated Shulkin, Bari and their son to lunch before the match in a private, members-only dining room.

In their response to Missal, Shulkin’s attorneys wrote that the inspector general had misinterpreted his remarks.

At the event, Shulkin invited a moderator to “ask any question you want.”

“Well, all right. The Wimbledon tickets —”

“Yes?” Shulkin interjected.

“— did you buy those?”

“Yes,” Shulkin said. “They were privately done, no government money.”

U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin discusses a Sept. 29, 2017 Washington Post report about his July trip to Europe that mixed business and leisure (Video: Washington Post Live)

But the inspector general found the evidence of a friendship thin. When investigators interviewed Gosling last week, she could not recall Bari’s first name, according to the report.

The findings were presented to the ethics official, who then reversed herself.

Shulkin told Missal’s investigators that he and his wife had offered to pay for the tickets before the trip but that Gosling “insisted on taking us as friends,” the report says.

Shulkin told investigators the reason he did not seek an ethics review before accepting the tickets was that the tennis event “had absolutely no business connection whatsoever,” the report says. “I wouldn’t think about clearing it with ethics,” Shulkin said.

In concluding that the gift was improper, Missal wrote: “Ms. Gosling gave a gift of the Wimbledon tickets, valued at thousands of dollars on the secondary commercial market, because of Secretary Shulkin’s official position.”

Shulkin’s attorneys said the secretary was not prohibited from accepting the tickets, because Gosling neither does nor seeks to do business with VA.

Even so, they wrote that Gosling and Bari are friends and that Gosling attributed her failure to remember Bari’s first name to the pressure she faced from investigators. “The investigators unexpectedly called me on my mobile phone whilst I was driving on a very busy highway,” she wrote in a statement provided by the lawyers. “I felt like the investigators were twisting my words and trying to put words into my mouth.”

When the trip was being planned, Missal wrote, ethics officials initially said travel expenses for Bari, a Philadelphia-area dermatologist, could not be covered because there was insufficient evidence that “her presence would serve a ‘sufficient government interest.’”

Wright Simpson became personally involved, Missal wrote.

In emails to James “Gabe” Gough, the aide in the traveling party who was coordinating with VA’s European counterparts, Wright Simpson pressed for confirmation that Shulkin would receive an award from the Danish government, which she understood to be the criterion that would justify Bari’s status as an “invitational traveler” whose expenses would be covered.

Gough said no award was planned.

“We’re working on having a dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence in the honor of SECVA, but that has not been confirmed by US Embassy Copenhagen yet,” Gough wrote, using the acronym for the secretary of Veterans Affairs.

According to the report, Wright Simpson then altered the email to make it appear that Gough had written, “We’re having a special recognition dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence in the honor of SECVA.” With confirmation in hand, she told ethics officials that an award was definite. Bari was approved as an all-expenses-paid traveler.

Shulkin received no award or special recognition on the trip.

Once his wife was on the official list of participants, Shulkin directed Gough to coordinate with her to schedule meals and visits to tourist attractions. “Boss told me ‘if she’s happy, I’m happy and you’re happy,’ ” Gough told a colleague in an email, according to the report.

Gough told investigators his involvement was necessary to coordinate security coverage for Shulkin.

Investigators came to a different conclusion: At Shulkin’s direction and on official time, they wrote, “Mr. Gough was serving as a de facto personal travel concierge to the Secretary and his wife.”

“Is there earlier flight from Copenhagen? Wimbledon tickets? High tea? Roman baths in [B]ath,” Bari wrote to Gough in June. “Would want to do baths not just tour.”

In another email, she said that “we like to be busy, we often don’t spend too much time at palaces or cathedrals. Secretary agrees that need some time to check in with work answer emails or call back each weekday so can be flexible in later afternoon after we do sightseeing.”

Gough complained to a colleague about Bari’s many requests, writing, “I would have been finished with this a week ago.”

The travelers’ expenses in some cases were inadequately explained or poorly documented, investigators found. A member of the security team’s expense voucher included “an inexplicable $3,825 overpayment for airport parking and a $2,718 overpayment for lodging.”

The report mentions another unusual expense: VA had official “Trip Book” itineraries printed for the entourage, 15 copies at a cost of $100 each.

Alex Horton contributed to this report.