Rep. Mike Coffman: VA Secretary must resign

VA chief of staff doctored email to cover up travel expenses inspector general finds

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin's chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, has been accused of altering an email and making false statements in an effort to ensure that taxpayers could be billed for Shulkin's wife's European jaunt last summer.

Shulkin has maintained that he did nothing wrong, though he said Thursday during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing that the "optics" of the situation were "not good", and that he regretted overshadowing the work his agency does on behalf of veterans.

In a written response, Shulkin said that 'It is outrageous that you would portray my wife and me as attempting to take advantage of the government'.

Not only was there no justification for Shulkin to take his wife on the trip, the inspector general report found, but Shulkin accepted free tickets to attend the Wimbledon tennis tournament and told ethics officials at his agency that they were from a friend of his wife.

Following the report's release on Wednesday, Colorado Republican Rep. Mike Coffman called for Shulkin's resignation.

Less than two weeks after Shulkin issued a memo to VA managers directing them to decrease employee travel "and generate savings", for the department, the secretary and his wife, Dr. Merle Bari, embarked in July on an 11-day trip to Europe, at a cost of at least $122,334, according to the report.

The report also called into question Shulkin's use of a VA aide, James Gough, to arrange visits to tourist attractions for Shulkin and his wife.

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That matter was referred to the Justice Department, which decided not to pursue a criminal prosecution at this time, the report said. "With that said, as public officials we are all expected to be held to a higher standard and be good stewards of tax dollars".

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., chair of the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, said the IG report is disappointing and asked committee members to refrain from questioning about the issue and stick with the topic at hand.

But in an interview with Politico, Shulkin said that Wright Simpson denied sending the email with altered information and showed him evidence that her email had been hacked, and that someone had been sending emails in her name.

The OIG also said Shulkin did not seek the advice of the VA ethics counsel before accepting the tickets as a gift.

The report also states that Simpson falsified statements and altered an email, "so that the trip expensed for Dr. Bari would be paid for by the VA".

"This was time that should have been spent conducting official VA business", the inspector wrote in the 84-page report. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have all been scrutinized for expensive taxpayer-funded travel, The Hill reported. Tom Price, who President Donald Trump appointed as health and human services secretary, resigned last fall after questions about his use of private jets for government trips. Federal travel regulations and VA policy allow employees travelling on official duty to combine it with personal travel under appropriate circumstances.

He said that he mailed a check to the government to reimburse taxpayers for his wife's $4,312 airfare and that he will reimburse his acquaintance for the Wimbledon tickets.

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