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Former VA secretary violated ethics rules by allowing employee to drive his wife around

U.S. Sec. of Veterans Affairs David Shulkin (Roberto Koltun/Miami Herald/TNS)
January 21, 2019

An investigation of former Veterans Affairs secretary David Shulkin largely cleared him of allegations he misused his security detail for shopping and other errands, but concluded he violated ethics rules by allowing his driver to provide transportation for his wife, the VA inspector general said in a report Thursday.

Investigators determined Shulkin permitted his driver to transport his wife on several occasions, in one case to a train station in a government vehicle when he was on duty and in other cases, in his personal vehicle on his own time ostensibly as a favor.

Using government vehicles for unofficial purposes was prohibited in this case, and the personal transportation services would have qualified as a gift, the inspector general concluded. Federal ethics rules bar employees from accepting gifts from subordinate staff.

“Secretary Shulkin was aware that these services, which benefited him at least indirectly, were being offered to his wife,” the inspector general’s report said. “Accordingly, he had an ethical obligation to decline the gift.”

The investigation was triggered by complaints that Shulkin improperly used agents during trips house-hunting and to Home Depot and a furniture store in the weeks after he took office in February 2017.

On those allegations, the inspector general concluded Shulkin had relied on the advice of staff about how much security he needed and when, and it was “within his discretion” to have a security detail accompany him during personal errands and other non-official events.

‘Fundamental failings’ in security

Within the VA division that oversees security details, the investigation turned up a litany of management problems – “fundamental failings” that left Shulkin and other top VA leaders with inadequate security. Among the findings:

• An agent shared information about the secretary’s planned movements with unauthorized individuals on multiple occasions.

• A duress-signaling system for the secretary didn’t work.

• Agents left keys unsecured behind the gas-hatch door of executive transport vehicles.

• Agents did not wear VA-issued body armor to protect them and protectees

The failures “resulted in security lapses that potentially undermined the safety measures for the VA Secretary,” the inspector general concluded.

Further, investigators found agents improperly parked their personal cars in government spaces, and on one occasion, three agents claimed to be working when in fact they were on a “day-long personal tourist excursion” in Sweden.

The inspector general recommended that the division establish policies and procedures to prevent future security lapses and abuses by agents, that current agency leaders are educated on appropriate uses for details, and that improper payments are recouped and appropriate disciplinary action taken.

VA officials concurred with the findings and said they already have established secure key-storage procedures, started requiring agents to wear body armor and instituted regular testing of panic alarms.

“The (Office of Security and Law Enforcement) is actively working to address the recommendations and has already made significant progress,” wrote Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd, who was an acting assistant secretary overseeing the office until a permanent assistant was sworn in last week.

The inspector general’s report did not include a response from Shulkin to the findings.

‘Failed communication’

Shulkin was fired by President Donald Trump last March, several weeks after another investigation found he had misused taxpayer dollars on a European trip with his wife in 2017.

It was during that trip that three of the agents in his detail claimed they were working and put in for overtime when in fact they made a personal visit to sight-see in Malmo, Sweden, 20 minutes away from where they were staying in Copenhagen, Denmark, supposedly working on security preparations before the secretary’s arrival.

“We went over there and, you know, got some souvenirs for the kiddos, had lunch, then came back,” one of the agents told investigators, according to the report.

Most Cabinet members have security details because they are at risk of attack because of the high-profile nature of their positions and because they are in the line of succession to the presidency. At the VA, about a dozen agents guard the secretary and deputy secretary.

Shortly after Trump nominated him to be secretary, Shulkin “made it clear that he was very concerned about his own security,” and after he was confirmed, security staff recommended he have “broad coverage” that included three agents and a driver to accompany him.

But “tensions” about his use of security details surfaced within weeks of his taking office, including when they were assigned to protect him during weekend house-hunting and visits to a furniture store and a Home Depot, the inspector general’s report said.

Still, investigators blamed “failed communication” by security officials who “did not effectively orient Secretary Shulkin” or advise him of issues some agents had raised about his using details during personal errands.

“There is no evidence that concerns were raised to him that his use was inappropriate,” the inspector general concluded. “In the absence of instruction to the contrary, the OIG concluded that Secretary Shulkin was within his discretion to use the Executive Protection Division for nonofficial events.”


© 2019 USA Today

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