- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 14, 2018

The U.S. Secretary of Veterans Affairs misused agency resources during a $122,000 European trip last year and a top staffer falsified an email to get the agency to pay for airfare for the secretary’s wife, according to an inspector general’s report released Wednesday.

The news prompted a vociferous outcry from Capitol Hill and at least one call for the resignation of VA Secretary David J. Shulkin, who acknowledged missteps but said he didn’t intentionally flout federal ethics laws.

The investigation “revealed serious derelictions by VA personnel concerning the Europe trip,” including improperly gifted Wimbledon tennis tickets for the secretary and his wife, inspector general Michael J. Missal wrote in the report.

Chief among the reported ethical breaches was Mr. Shulkin’s chief of staff altering an email from an aide to make it look to a VA ethics official as if Mr. Shulkin would be receiving an award in Denmark during part of the trip — which allowed the VA to cover the $4,000 plane ticket of Dr. Merle Bari, the secretary’s wife.

The IG said it referred that issue to the Department of Justice because it may have violated federal criminal statues against altering an official record, but DOJ decided not to prosecute “at this time.”

Mr. Shulkin also improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets from a woman who he described as a friend of his wife — a case that could qualify as a friendship exception to federal ethics rules on government officials accepting gifts.

But the woman, Victoria Gosling, was unable to recall Dr. Bari’s first name in a subsequent interview with investigators, who could not identify any evidence of a relationship that would allow for an exception, the report said.

The report also said that an aide, Gabe Gough, effectively served as a concierge for the secretary and his wife during nonofficial parts of the trip.

“This was time that should have been spent conducting official VA business and not for providing personal travel concierge services to Secretary Shulkin and his wife,” the report said.

In response, Mr. Shulkin said the report didn’t appear to be accurate or objective, that he had nothing to do with getting approval for his wife’s travel, and that they simply attended a sporting event with a friend and tried to reimburse her for the tickets.

He also said he was “deeply concerned” with how the office conducted the investigation, saying investigators treated VA staff, his wife, and his friends “with extreme contempt, bordering on badgering and harassment.”

“Your staff’s conduct related to this investigation reeks of an agenda,” Mr. Shulkin said in a statement accompanying the report. “Your portrayal of this trip is overall and entirely inaccurate.”

But in a newspaper interview Wednesday, Mr. Shulkin expressed regrets, saying he could have done more to stay informed during the process.

“We act with the highest ethical character,” he told USA Today. “I relied upon my staff to do this, and in retrospect, I wish that I had asked more questions.”

He said he mailed a check to reimburse the government for his wife’s travel and was working to reimburse Ms. Gosling for the tennis tickets.

“I have respect for the job the IG needs to do,” he said. “I have followed and complied with the recommendations.”

Still, lawmakers from both parties said Mr. Shulkin, at the very least, needs to come to Capitol Hill and explain himself. He had been previously scheduled to appear before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee on Thursday to testify about President Trump’s 2019 budget.

Rep. Mike Coffman, a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs and Armed Services Committees, said Mr. Shulkin needs to resign.

“It’s exactly corruption and abuses like this that doesn’t help our veterans. @SecShulkin must RESIGN now. @realDonaldTrump ran on accountability, it starts here,” the Colorado Republican tweeted.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, meanwhile, blamed Mr. Trump for the lapse, saying “the fish rots from the head.”

“The president’s clear, repeated conflicts of interest create a corrosive culture of unethical permissiveness that infects his entire administration,” said Mr. Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat.

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