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VA chief Shulkin, under fire for Europe trip, acknowledges ‘the optics of this are not good’

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 promised House lawmakers Thursday that he will repay parts of his taxpayer-funded travel to Europe last year, a 10-day trip that included choice accommodations for a Wimbledon tennis match and several sightseeing excursions with his wife.

Shulkin, appearing shaken and remorseful, told members of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs that he would “do whatever I have to do to make things right” following publication Wednesday of a damning report detailing efforts by the secretary and his staff to mislead VA’s ethics office. The report was written by Michael J. Missal, the agency’s inspector general.

For Shulkin, it was a noticeable departure from his defiant tone the day prior, when he characterized Missal’s report as “unfair” and “entirely inaccurate,” insisting he’d done nothing wrong.

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

“I’ve already written a check to the Treasury,” Shulkin told lawmakers during a previously scheduled hearing intended to focus on VA’s $200 billion budget proposal.

The committee’s chairman, Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), opened the hearing with a statement noting that public officials controlled taxpayer money and must be held to a “higher standard.”

Shulkin told the committee: “I do recognize the optics of this are not good. I accept responsibility.” Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.), who called for Shulkin’s resignation after reading the report Wednesday, shot back: “It’s not the optics that are not good. It’s the facts that are not good.”

Mark Takano (D-Calif.) said he was “profoundly frustrated” and that Shulkin had to work to “restore trust.” Rep. Ann Kuster (D-N.H.) told him, “I hope in the coming days you’ll be forthcoming with the American people.”

The inspector general’s report says that Shulkin’s chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, altered an aide’s email to make it appear as though Shulkin was receiving an award from the Danish government, justification for allowing the government to pay for Shulkin’s wife to join him on the trip. VA paid more than $4,300 for her airfare, the report says.

Shulkin has suggested Wright Simpson’s email was compromised, telling Politico Wednesday that his chief of staff is a “37-year government employee with very high ethical standards.” Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), the panel’s ranking minority-party member, has asked the Justice Department to review those allegations.

Shulkin’s woes mark the latest setback for VA, which has faced withering criticism over a host of scandals, including long wait times for appointments and medical malpractice.

White House targets VA’s deputy secretary as ‘a warning shot’ to agency’s leader

He is among five current and former Trump administration Cabinet members to be investigated by inspectors general over travel expenses. Tom Price resigned last year as health and human services secretary amid widespread outrage over his use of taxpayer-funded charter flights. Officials have said their travel on private planes or military aircraft was approved by their agencies’ ethics officials.

In Shulkin’s case, he has defended the Europe trip, which included a conference on veterans mental health care, as essential and beneficial.

When he wasn’t answering lawmakers’ questions about his travel, Shulkin was addressing the agency’s ongoing struggle to fill several senior-level jobs and hire mental-health providers. President Trump has prioritized lowering the rate of suicide among veterans — currently estimated at 20 per day.

He faced heated questions, too, about VA’s plans to outsource veterans care, a program known as Choice. Due to the long wait-times veterans experience at VA facilities nationwide, the issue has become a focal point. Many unions and civil servants, along with veterans service organizations, fear such proposals will leave VA gutted.