Top aide to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin announces departure two days after travel scandal explodes

  • Veterans Affairs Department Chief of Staff Vivieca Wright Simpson announced her retirement on Friday.
  • Wright Simpson was accused in an official report of lying and altering a document to get the the department to pay for the travel expenses of VA Secretary David Shulkin's wife for a trip to Europe last summer.
  • Shulkin has agreed to pay for his wife's travel and Wimbledon tickets after being strongly criticized in that report.

The chief of staff of the Veterans Affairs Department announced her retirement Friday, two days after being blasted for allegedly lying and altering a document to get the VA to pay European travel expenses for Secretary David Shulkin's wife.

The resignation of Vivieca Wright Simpson came as her boss Shulkin struggled to save his job amid questions of his own conduct surrounding the trip last year — and as the VA announced it has opened a formal investigation specifically of Wright Simpson's actions.

At the same time, the VA said it also has launched an investigation into Shulkin's claims that Wright Simpson's email account had been hacked.

Shulkin's allegations imply that an email which Wright Simpson was accused by the VA's Inspector General's Office of altering in connection with the trip to Europe actually may have been changed by someone else.

"President Trump has made clear that he expects VA leaders to hold themselves and other employees accountable when they fail to live up to the high standards taxpayers and veterans deserve," VA spokesman Curt Cashour said in an email.

"VA will continue to review the IG report and its recommendations in more detail before determining possible additional personnel accountability actions."

A scathing report issued Wednesday from the VA Office of Inspector General on Shulkin and his chief of staff had noted that criminal charges should be considered for Wright Simpson, who worked for 32 years at the VA.

USA Today first reported that Wright Simpson had told colleagues on Friday morning that she would retire as the third most senior official at the VA, which has a $182 billion budget and more than 340,000 employees who oversee health care and benefits to military veterans.

The IG's report examined an official trip that Shulkin took last year to Copenhagen and London.

The report found that most of the trip was taken up with personal time, and not official business — and that Shulkin had a subordinate arrange personal travel plans during the trip for him and his wife, Dr. Merle Bari, which the report called a "misuse" of the subordinate's official work time.

Shulkin also improperly accepted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament as a gift, according to the report.

The report also noted that Wright Simpson had "made false representations to a VA ethics official and altered an official record, resulting in VA improperly paying for Dr. Bari's air travel."

The record was an email from another VA employee, which Wright Simpson allegedly doctored and forwarded falsely claim that Shulkin would be receiving an award while in Denmark, which she understood would provide justification for Bari to travel with him at taxpayers' expense.

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.
Getty Images
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.

IG investigators had referred Wright Simpson's conduct to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution. But the DOJ declined to bring charges.

When the report was released Wednesday, Shulkin was contemptuous of its findings, saying, "I have done nothing wrong."

"The report is not accurate, not objective," Shulkin told The New York Times that day. "I was horrified when I saw the way the investigator conducted himself."

The Times also noted that Wright Simpson had denied the report's conclusions, claiming that the dinner she had mentioned in the email justifying paying for Bari's travel had actually occurred, and that she had not had a chance to review the report or respond to it before it was released.

But by the next day, while appearing before the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Shulkin took a much different tone.

"I do recognize the optics of this are not good," Shulkin said, according to The Washington Post. "I accept responsibility."

Shulkin said he had written a check to the U.S. Treasury to cover the $4,300 cost of his wife's travel with him last summer, as had been recommended by the IG's report.

Shulkin also said he would follow another recommendation from the report, to pay for the Wimbledon tickets.

Later Thursday, Shulkin was reportedly summoned to the White House to speak with John Kelly, chief of staff to President Donald Trump.

The Post, citing a White House official, reported that at the meeting, "Shulkin defended himself ... and sought to blame others within VA for not properly handling the trip's preparations and its aftermath."