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The Veteran Affairs secretary’s Euro trip scandal, explained

A report scrutinizes David Shulkin’s Wimbledon tickets and his wife’s pricey airfare.

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin Addresses VA Healthcare System
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Yet another Trump administration official is facing ethics questions after an inspector general’s report found that Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets, and that his chief of staff misled officials about Shulkin’s wife’s travel to Europe last summer.

The inspector general’s findings, released Wednesday, revealed that Shulkin’s trip to London and Copenhagen in July — which included Shulkin’s wife, three VA staffers, and six members of the secretary’s security detail — involved “personal time for sightseeing and other unofficial activities” such as a visit to Westminster Abbey and not one, but two river cruises on the Thames and the Nyhavn Canal in Copenhagen.

Shulkin justified the travel as in support of the VA’s mission. But the report documented only three and a half days of meetings and other official events during a nine-day trip that cost at least $122,334. According to the report, Shulkin’s chief of staff Vivieca Wright Simpson doctored an email to create the justification for the VA to subsidize travel for Shulkin’s wife, Merle Bari, whose flight cost $4,300. (Simpson resigned Friday in the wake of the scandal.)

The findings raise serious ethics questions about Shulkin, who until now was one of the least controversial members of Trump’s cabinet. Shulkin served in the Obama administration as a Veterans Affairs undersecretary and was confirmed unanimously to serve as VA secretary in February 2017. After initially responding to the report as containing “the thread of bias,” Shulkin indicated that he would follow the inspector general’s recommendations, which included reimbursing the VA for his wife’s airfare and paying for the Wimbledon tickets.

This is also just one of numerous scandals this week involving both travel and the misuse of taxpayer money within the Trump administration. Shulkin’s Wimbledon weekend and sightseeing tours had previously been reported this fall, but the inspector general’s report uncovers the ethical lapses in detail — with the additional layer of a deliberate attempt to mislead ethics officials.

Shulkin appeared to turn a business trip into a vacation

The trip in question arose in an ordinary way: Shulkin had accepted an invitation to attend the Ministerial Summit on Veterans’ Affairs in London to meet with his counterparts from the United Kingdom, Canada, and elsewhere — a two-day event, plus a reception the evening before it began, in July 2017.

But according to the Veterans Affairs Office of the Inspector General, Shulkin asked his staff to include a trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, before the London summit, setting up meetings with his Danish counterparts a few days before Shulkin had to be in London. Shulkin had a few days between the meeting in Denmark and the start of the summit with no apparent obligations.

The inspector general’s office found Shulkin and his wife filled those days with personal downtime and sightseeing excursions, which included Westminster Abbey, a trip to Wimbledon, a river cruise along the Thames, and more.

Besides Shulkin, chief of staff Simpson and James (Gabe) Gough, a program specialist, and then-acting VA undersecretary for health Poonam Alaigh traveled to Europe, along with six members of the secretary’s security detail. So did Shulkin’s wife, Merle Bari — the VA approved her travel as an “invitational guest.” (More on that below.)

The sightseeing excursions, which also included Westminster, the Churchill War Rooms and a dinner excursion to Sweden, took a lot of coordination. According to the report, Gough was tasked with setting up a sightseeing schedule — which wasn’t exactly part of his job description.

The inspector general’s office couldn’t determine exactly how much time Gough spent moonlighting as what it called a “de facto personal travel concierge to the Secretary and his wife,” but emails suggest quite a bit. Here’s an email from Bari, Shulkin’s wife, to Gough on July 23:

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

Or this one, which Gough sent Bari on June 30:

Dr. Bari – are you free for a call? This is what the Sunday trip would look like to Windsor and Bath. If you’re good with this, please let me know so that I can send this day to all the security teams for them to get to work on…Everything from Trip Advisor to the actual website has the Roman Baths being ruins, and you aren’t able to get in them. It’s more of like walking through ruins. I’ve tried looking around the town of Bath to see if there is a spa that would allow you to do this, but haven’t been successful. Is there something you found that I didn’t?

Bari’s reply: “Call me later but i dont think this will work[.]”

The VA also found that Shulkin’s team did a poor job of keeping track of documenting their expenses from the trip that would justify the costs — but some things were fishy, with or without receipts, such as $1,733 for early check-ins.

And two weeks before the trip, Shulkin sent a memo scolding employees about overspending on travel: “The memorandum,” the inspector general’s report said, “instructed staff that before approving any employee travel, managers must determine whether the travel is ‘essential’ in order to decrease ‘employee travel and generate savings’ within VA.”

A VA official changed an email to help justify Shulkin’s wife’s travel

Another ethical issue raised was why the Department of Veterans Affairs paid for Bari’s travel. She was listed as an “invitational guest” because her husband was reportedly going to be honored at the US Embassy in Copenhagen.

But the inspector general found that chief of staff Simpson doctored a June 2017 email while arranging the trip to make it seem as if Shulkin was definitely receiving an honor at the US Embassy in Copenhagen — which would help justify Bari’s travel on the VA’s dime. In fact, the event wasn’t confirmed.

Here’s the email Gough wrote (“SECVA” refers to Shulkin): “We’re working on having a dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence in honor of SECVA but that has not been confirmed by US Embassy Copenhagen yet.”

Here’s how Wright Simpson altered it before forwarding it to a VA ethics official, who would have to approve Bari’s travel expense: “We’re having a special recognition dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence in the honor of SECVA.”

Simpson then forwarded the altered text to a VA ethics official, who replied to Simpson that the confirmation of the event “should serve as an approval to proceed.”

The ethics official told the inspector general’s office she wasn’t aware the email had been tweaked, so she approved the travel for Bari. The airfare alone cost more than $4,000.

Shulkin told the inspector general’s office that his wife had planned to pay for her own airfare and travel, but that staff told him the VA would cover it. Simpson told investigators she didn’t recall changing the email, then declined to answer directly and said she responded “appropriately.”

According to the Washington Post, Shulkin never received an award.

Watching Venus play tennis on a work trip

Another ethical red flag, according to the inspector general’s office, was Shulkin’s trip to Wimbledon. In between the Denmark trip and the London summit, Shulkin and his wife attended the Wimbledon women’s championship. Victoria Gosling, a philanthropist who chaired the Invictus Games in 2016 (Prince Harry’s athletic competition for wounded vets), provided the tickets, and also had lunch with Shulkin.

The Washington Post first reported Shulkin’s Wimbledon trip in September. Shulkin had accepted the tickets without approval from the VA, but got the retroactive okay from ethics officials when he told them that Gosling was a friend of his wife’s. Ethics rules allow officials and their families to accept gifts from “personal friends” rather than business contacts.

Shulkin later said at a Washington Post event on November 9 that he had paid for the tickets. He did not, and the inspector general noted this contradiction in the report.

But the inspector general’s office also questioned the friend story. During a more than 20-minute interview, according to the report, Gosling only referred to Bari as Shulkin’s wife. Finally, investigators asked her outright if she could name the woman she was supposedly personal friends with. She couldn’t:

After a long pause, Ms. Gosling was unable to recall Dr. Bari’s name, stating, “You actually -- I think that kept throwing me. I’m actually having a genuine blank here.”

The Trump administration’s travel problem

Shulkin’s letter in response to the inspector general’s report criticized its findings, and Shulkin claimed ignorance on Wednesday. He said that he was unaware that his relationship with Gosling wouldn’t qualify for a friendship exemption, and said he wasn’t aware of his chief of staff’s actions.

“I believe that I relied upon the processes that are there, you know what every Cabinet secretary has to rely upon their staff to do this work,” he told USA Today. “And in retrospect I wish that I had asked more questions.”

The inspector general’s recommendations called for Shulkin and his wife to pay back some of the trip’s expenses, including the $4,300 airfare. The office also recommended that Shulkin repay Gosling (or the US Treasury) for the Wimbledon seats, and hinted at possibly disciplinary or administrative action against Simpson, though nothing specific.

And while the inspector general suggested that Simpson’s doctored email could violate federal law, the Washington Post reported the Justice Department has so far declined to prosecute.

“I have followed and complied with the recommendations,” Shulkin told USA Today.

The Shulkin drama is just one of numerous scandals involving both travel and the misuse of taxpayer money currently plaguing the Trump administration.

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned in September after facing questions about his $400,000 in travel for chartered flights.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has also come under fire for taking chartered flights for thousands of dollars when commercial options were available. That included a $12,000 chartered plane to Montana, his home state.

CBS News reported Tuesday that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt got a travel waiver to fly business and first class, including a flight from Milan to the US in a luxurious Emirates business class cabin. Pruitt reportedly said he flew first class because of unpleasant interactions with other travelers.

And Trump himself, of course, spent more than $6 million last year traveling to his own properties.

Update: This post has been updated to note that Simpson stepped down Friday.