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VA watchdog to say chief wrongly accepted Wimbledon tickets, airfare, but his lawyers blast findings

U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin talks to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House May 31, 2017 in Washington, DC.
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U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin talks to reporters in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House May 31, 2017 in Washington, DC.

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."

Invictus Games adviser

The Wimbledon tickets were provided by Victoria Gosling, a strategic adviser to the Invictus Games UK — a sports event for wounded warriors — whom Shulkin and his wife had met at events in the United States. She had no official business before the VA and offered the tickets only after her sister couldn't attend, the lawyers said.

In an affidavit, Gosling said she considers Shulkin and his wife friends, but she said that during an interview with investigators, she forgot Bari's name.

"The investigators unexpectedly called me on my mobile phone whilst I was driving on a very busy highway," Gosling wrote, adding that she felt investigators tried to twist her words and put words in her mouth. "Given the nature of the interview, I felt flustered and could not remember Merle's name."

The lawyers argue that whether they were personal friends or not is irrelevant because the tickets were not given to Shulkin because of his position or seeking to influence official action.

In addition, they said an aide began planning sightseeing activities voluntarily and not at Shulkin's direction, they said, and his involvement in daily planning was necessary in any case, given the coordination required for security.

"That effort involved coordination not just with the Secretary's security detail, but also with officials at the American Embassies in London and Copenhagen ," the lawyers wrote.

An itinerary shows the couple toured a castle and palaces, took a Thames River cruise and had dinner at Piccadilly Circus in London, among other activities. The lawyers said he still took phone calls and conducted official business, but that in any case, VA policy "expressly permits employees to combine official travel with personal travel."

Shulkin is the only holdover from the Obama administration in President Trump's Cabinet and he was sworn in one year ago Wednesday. He was previously the undersecretary for health at the VA.

During his tenure, Shulkin has directed increased transparency efforts, including a new website revealing wait times for VA care and quality comparisons to the private sector. Shulkin has also upped accountability efforts, swiftly removing hospital directors when problems with care have been revealed including in Manchester, N.H., and Washington.

He also fulfilled some of President Trump's key campaign promises on veterans' issues, overseeing the creation of a 24-hour White House hotline for veteran complaints and a new accountability and whistleblower protection office that has drawn praise for its early efforts.

Shulkin ordered the rewriting of decades old policies on hiring and reporting poor medical care providers to authorities after USA TODAY revealed massive lapses in hiring guidelines and in reporting substandard practitioners to state licensing boards and a national database created to stop them from crossing state lines to escape their pasts and potentially harm other patients.

High-flying Cabinet members

Shulkin also has not taken corporate jets or racked up other high-flying expenses on taxpayers like some other Cabinet members, many of whom are billionaires who had been accustomed to taking private jets.

Tom Price resigned as Health and Human Services secretary in September amid an outcry after he racked up at least $400,000 in charter flights on the public's dime. The inspector general at the Department of the Interior dinged Secretary Ryan Zinke in November for incomplete documentation of his official travel, including trips with his wife.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin faced an inspector general investigation after he used government aircraft for several official trips that cost taxpayers at least $800,000. The Treasury IG, however, found in October that Mnuchin had not violated any laws with the travel. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt remains under investigation by that agency's inspector general.

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