A new report from the Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General recommends that VA head David Shulkin and other staff reimburse the agency for unallowable expenses incurred during a European trip last summer.
Shulkin, along with his wife, senior VA leaders and a six-member security detail took the 11-day trip in July to meet with Danish veterans’ healthcare officials and a VA summit in London. The trip also included several days of preplanned tourist activities, according to the OIG report (PDF), which was released this morning.
The report claims that a senior VA official altered text to falsely indicate in an email that Shulkin was receiving an award from the Danish government to justify the reason for the VA to pay $4,312 for his wife’s travel. It also calls into question Shulkin’s acceptance of two tickets worth thousands to a Wimbledon tennis tournament. Shulkin said the tickets were a gift to the couple from his wife’s friend but federal ethics rules prohibit the acceptance of a gift because of an employee’s official position. Shulkin didn’t seek an opinion from the VA ethics counsel as to whether it was appropriate to accept the tickets as a gift, according to the report.
The entire trip cost the VA at least $122,334, which includes more than $100,000 in traveler-incurred expenses and $21,347 in reimbursements to the U.S. Embassies in London and Copenhagen. Federal travel regulations and VA policy allow employees travelling on official duty to combine it with personal travel under appropriate circumstances. But when they do combine business with pleasure, the employee must pay additional costs.
The OIG recommends Shulkin reimburse his wife’s travel costs of $4,312; reimburse the woman who gave him the Wimbledon tickets, and if she declines to accept reimbursement, pay back the money to the U.S. Treasury; work with appropriate agencies to determine whether any administrative action should be taken against the VA official who falsely represented the facts of the trip; conduct a thorough audit of all expenses for all travelers on the trip and reimburse any overpayments; and review and enhance training of staff on travel rules.
Shulkin said in a Feb. 12 letter included in the report that it was “outrageous that you would portray my wife and me as attempting to take advantage of the government.” He said the report does not appear accurate or objective and contains a thread of bias. “A report of this nature is a direct assault on my spouse, my character, and my unblemished record of service to the Veterans Affairs Administration,” he wrote.
Shulkin’s lawyers also disputed the findings and asked that the OIG not publish the report in its current form. The report includes their rebuttal, which says Shulkin’s travel was valuable to the mission of the VA, his acceptance of the Wimbledon tickets was not inappropriate and that Shulkin relied on the approval of the VA ethics committee for his wife’s travel.