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Top VA aide tried to cover up taxpayer-paid vacation for chief’s wife: IG report

VA Secretary David Shulkin (White House/Flickr)
February 16, 2018

With the help of his chief of staff, Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin was allegedly able to give his wife a 10-day trip to Europe last summer at taxpayers’ expense.

A recent 97-page report by the agency’s inspector general found doctored emails and discovered Shulkin’s chief of staff made false statements in order to reportedly disguise the vacation as a government trip.

Vivieca Wright Simpson, the VA’s third-most senior official, altered language in email exchanges with an aide who was coordinating the trip, the report stated.

Simpson made it appear as though Shulkin was receiving an award from the Danish government, which she then allegedly used as a reason to justify paying for Shulkin’s wife to attend the trip.

Inspector General Michael Missal said in the report that the VA paid out more than $4,300 for her airfare.

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This misuse of funds is just one of the many claims against Shulkin and his staff as part of a larger investigation.

The investigation concluded that Shulkin and other individuals working alongside him have continually misled agency ethics officials and the public about expenses. They allege he not only purposely omitted details of his trips, but also improperly accepted gifts of Wimbledon tennis match tickets and even 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.

Shulkin now finds himself among at least five other current or former Trump Administration cabinet members under investigation for misusing government funds.

Last fall, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned after it was discovered he cost tax payers millions stemming from chartered flights for himself and his staff. Price would end up writing a check for more than $50,000 to cover some of those expenses.

Following the investigation, Shulkin also wrote a check to reimburse the government for the cost of his wife’s travel expenses, and, according to his attorneys, he intends on repaying the cost of the tennis tickets, as well.

However, in his formal response, Shulkin wrote that VA staffers had suggested that his wife’s travel expenses be paid for by the agency. He even went as far as to say that the inspector general’s description of the trip was “entirely inaccurate” and that it “reeks of an agenda.”

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

Vivieca Wright Simpson, Shulkin’s aide who is accused of doctoring the emails, also dismissed any wrongdoing.

In an interview with investigators, she claimed she did not recall whether she altered the email. In a follow-up interview, she did not directly respond to questions regarding the email, and repeatedly said: “I responded appropriately to the email.”

“I look forward to inserting facts into the record so it may reflect truth and accuracy and eliminate any further confusion or misrepresentation,” she concluded.

The email in question was written by an aide and included the line: “We’re working on having a dinner at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in the honor of SECVA (Secretary of Veterans Affairs), but that has not been confirmed yet.”

According to the report, Wright Simpson altered the email to make it appear that the aide had written: “We’re having a special recognition dinner at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in the honor of SECVA.”

This false confirmation was then forwarded to ethic officials to approve Shulkin’s wife as an all-expenses paid travel.

Shulkin received no award or special recognition on the trip.