Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said he regrets mistakes he and others made during travel planning and ethics clearance processes that led to findings by the VA inspector general that he had misused taxpayer resources during a European trip last year.
The inspector general found Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets and taxpayer-funded airfare for his wife for the 10-day trip in July, and he and his chief of staff misled VA ethics officials while seeking official approval for the tickets and flights.
Investigators found the chief of staff, Viveca Wright Simpson, doctored an email to make it look like Shulkin was getting special recognition or an award during the trip in order to get approval for his wife's flights. And they said Shulkin mischaracterized the woman who provided him with the Wimbledon tickets as a friend when they had only met three times at official events.
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Shulkin told USA TODAY in an exclusive interview that "there was never anything intentional."
"We act with the highest ethical character," he said. "I relied upon my staff to do this, and in retrospect, I wish that I had asked more questions."
Shulkin said he had no involvement with his chief of staff's actions and didn't realize the woman who gave him the tickets, Invictus Games adviser Victoria Gosling, might not meet the legal bar for personal friendship. Shulkin said he could have done more to ensure he was better informed.
"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 said. "And in retrospect I wish that I had asked more questions."
Shulkin said he mailed a check Wednesday to reimburse the government for the cost of his wife's airfare, $4,312, and is moving to reimburse Gosling for the tennis tickets, both recommendations in the inspector general's report.
"I have respect for the job the IG needs to do," he said. "I have followed and complied with the recommendations."
The moves followed calls from Capitol Hill for the secretary to fully address all the allegations in the report. One lawmaker, Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., called for his resignation.
Shulkin is the only holdover from the Obama administration in President Trump's Cabinet. Previously undersecretary for health, he was sworn in as secretary one year ago Wednesday. Planning for the trip began after he and his chief of staff had been in office for only two months.
Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari, took the trip with three other VA executives and a six-member security detail ostensibly to attend meetings in Denmark and a summit on veterans' issues in London.
But nearly half the trip, which cost taxpayers more than $120,000 in all, was spent sightseeing. Shulkin asked an aide beforehand to plan the leisure activities with his wife, arrangements that required an "extensive use of official time," the inspector general found.
"This was time that should have been spent conducting official VA business and not providing personal travel concierge services to Secretary Shulkin and his wife," VA Inspector General Michael Missal wrote.
Before the report was released, Shulkin had criticized the investigation as unfair and inaccurate, but afterward expressed his regrets.