Department of Veterans Affairs investigators are poised to claim Secretary David Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets and used taxpayers' money to pay his wife's airfare during a European trip last summer — findings Shulkin's lawyers are blasting as questionable and unfair.
The report by the VA inspector general is scheduled to be released sometime this week, but some of its key findings can be inferred from a point-by-point rebuttal drafted by Shulkin's lawyers and obtained by USA TODAY.
The impending report is expected to criticize Shulkin for taking an unnecessary trip, using taxpayers money for tourist activities and using a VA employee to arrange his leisure time.
Shulkin's lawyers criticize the impending report as unfair and inaccurate and suggest the inspector general's investigation was biased against Shulkin from the start.
"The draft report ignores critical facts, presenting a one-sided version of events that casts aside evidence contradicting your chosen narrative," the lawyers, Justin Shur, Eric Nitz, and Emily Damrau, wrote.
Shulkin took the 10-day trip with his wife and other staff last July to attend meetings with health care officials in Denmark and a summit on veterans' issues in London.
VA Inspector General Michael Missal began investigating the excursion in October after The Washington Post reported the couple spent nearly half of the trip sightseeing. Among the findings, as inferred from Shulkin's lawyers' rebuttal:
- That the trip may not have qualified as "essential travel" under a cost-saving directive Shulkin himself issued to VA leaders just weeks before his trip.
- His wife's airfare should not have been paid for by the VA or approved by ethics officials at the agency and the amount of leisure time during the trip was a questionable use of taxpayer dollars.
- The couple's acceptance of tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament may have been improper and the person who provided the tickets was not a personal friend as ethics officials who approved the gift had been told.
- He improperly directed VA staff on official time to arrange personal sightseeing activities.
In the eight-page rebuttal, Shulkin's lawyers maintain the report "improperly applies the relevant regulations, at times mischaracterizing them."
"And it imposes subjective and arbitrary criteria for evaluating the propriety of the Secretary's actions," they wrote.
They say the trip was "immensely valuable" to his work learning about and participating in addressing developing issues facing veterans. They said it is "beyond obvious" that it qualified as "essential travel" and any suggestion otherwise demonstrates a "fundamental lack of understanding of the Secretary's work and the VA's mission."
They said flying home after the meetings in Denmark on July 14 and then flying back for the summit in London July 18 would have cost taxpayers more than their staying in Europe those four days. The sightseeing they did during that time was paid for by Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari. And they said his wife's coach airfare to Europe was approved as a taxpayer expense by VA ethics officials, and he had nothing to do with securing that approval.
"In fact, Secretary Shulkin and Dr. Bari were prepared to pay for Dr. Bari's travel as they always had done previously," they wrote. "It was only when staff approached the Secretary to suggest Dr. Bari's travel could be reimbursed that Secretary Shulkin became aware that was a possibility."