VA secretary improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets during $122,334 European work trip: Report

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin improperly accepted a gift of Wimbledon tickets during a work trip to Europe last summer in which he spent the majority of the time sightseeing, according to a blistering new report released by the VA’s Office of Inspector General.

The 11-day trip to Copenhagen and London cost taxpayers at least $122,334, the report said. It also alleged that Shulkin’s chief of staff altered a document and misrepresented information to ethics officials that ultimately caused his wife’s airfare to be covered by taxpayer dollars.

Shulkin, his wife Dr. Merle Bari, senior VA leaders and a six-member security detail flew a commercial airline to Copenhagen in July to attend a day-and-a-half of meetings with Danish government and health care officials to discuss veterans issues, but also included a day of tourist stops.

The delegation then flew commercially to London to attend a veterans conference. But over half of the secretary’s six days there were spent sightseeing, including a trip on the London Eye, a river cruise down the Thames, and the Wimbledon tennis tournament, according to the report.

The IG report said that, in the process, a VA employee’s time was “misused as a personal travel concierge to plan tourist activities exceeding that necessary for security arrangements.”

Shulkin called the report “a direct assault on my spouse, my character and my unblemished record of service.”

“If you had properly considered my testimony and recognition of the facts of this case, however, I am confident that you would have concluded that I have conducted myself properly, ethically and inline with how I have always served the Veterans Administration,” he said.

In a thorough 16-page letter responding to the investigation, Shulkin’s attorneys raised “grave concerns” with the IG report, urging the IG not to release it in its current form without significant revisions.

“Your report presents a one-sided account of the circumstances surrounding the Secretary’s trip to Europe. It omits critical facts and pieces of evidence that contradict your chosen narrative and that make clear the Secretary has done nothing wrong,” the letter states, adding, “Your investigators have relied on interrogation techniques that have long since been recognized as unfair, unreliable, and abusive.”

But at least one Republican congressman is already calling for Shulkin’s resignation, saying it is “exactly corruption and abuses like this that doesn’t help our veterans.”

Wife’s travel improperly paid for by the government

According to the report, Shulkin’s chief of staff Wright Simpson falsely represented to VA ethics officials the itinerary of the trip in order to have Shulkin’s wife approved as an “invitational traveler” — allowing her expenses to be covered by the VA.

VA ethics officials originally denied the designation for Bari, saying her presence on the trip would not serve a “sufficient government interest.” In response, Simpson said Shulkin would be receiving an award while in Copenhagen, “a criterion that would justify Dr. Bari’s travel at VA expense,” the report said.

When the ethics official reached out to Simpson for additional information about the award, the chief of staff forwarded emails exchanged with a trip coordinator about Shulkin’s itinerary in Denmark.

Those emails originally showed the coordinator telling Simpson, “We’re working on having a dinner at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in honor of SECVA, but that has not been confirmed by U.S. Embassy Copenhagen yet.”

But the IG found Simpson had altered the email forwarded to an ethics official to read, “We’re having a special recognition dinner at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in the honor of SECVA.”

That altered email led Bari to be approved as an “invitational traveler” because Shulkin appeared to be receiving an award. The VA ultimately paid more than $4,000 for her commercial airline ticket.

The IG found that Shulkin was not aware of Simpson’s alteration of official records, but did refer the matter to the Department of Justice, saying Simpson’s actions “may have violated federal criminal statutes.” However, DOJ has decided not to prosecute at this time.

Ultimately, Shulkin never received an award or special recognition during the trip, the report said.

Shulkin’s lawyers said he and his wife were prepared to pay for her travel, as they had done previously, and it was not until staff told the secretary that Bari’s travel could be reimbursed by the VA that he became aware of that possibility.

Secretary improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets

According to the report, Shulkin mischaracterized to VA ethics officials the relationship he and his wife had with the individual who gave them tickets to the ladies’ final tennis match at Wimbledon in London.

According to federal ethics rules, Shulkin could not have received the gift unless it met an exception — in this case, the “personal friendship” exception. But the report said Shulkin never should have characterized the person who gave him the tickets as a friend.

Shulkin and Bari received the tickets from and attended the match with Victoria Gosling, who served as the CEO of the 2016 Invictus Games, an international competition for wounded warriors.

The report stated that, at the time, Shulkin did not seek an opinion from the VA ethics counsel as to whether it was appropriate to accept the gift. It wasn’t until September, after the VA learned The Washington Post was working on a story about his attendance at Wimbledon, that Shulkin directed an expedited ethics review of his acceptance of the tickets.

During that review, Shulkin characterized Gosling as a friend of his wife, saying “there is no business relationship, but purely a social friendship between the two of them.” That response allowed the gift to be greenlit under the “personal friendship” exception by VA ethics officials.

But the report found that the relationship between Gosling and Bari should never have been called a friendship.

The IG attempted to make contact with Gosling at least 19 times between Dec. 15 and Jan. 24. She finally responded to an email on Jan. 30, calling Shulkin and Bari “friends of mine” and saying she offered them Wimbledon tickets “to thank them for their personal support to me whilst I was CEO Invictus Games Orlando.”

In a 26-minute interview with the IG on Feb. 6, Gosling confirmed Shulkin’s account that prior to attending the tennis match, the three individuals had only had contact during three official events in the United States.

Near the end of the interview, the IG investigators asked Gosling if she could recall the first name of Shulkin’s wife.

“After a long pause, Ms. Gosling was unable to recall Dr. Bari’s name, stating, ‘You actually — I think that kept throwing me. I’m actually having a genuine blank here.’ Ms. Gosling was unable to recall Dr. Bari’s name before the interview concluded,” the report said.

After reviewing Shulkin, Bari and Gosling’s relationship, the IG concluded that there was not enough evidence to meet the “personal friendship” exception. A VA ethics official told the IG that had she known this information at the time, she would not have granted a favorable opinion concerning the acceptance of the Wimbledon tickets.

Shulkin’s lawyers argued that the Wimbledon tickets would not violate federal gift restrictions because Gosling was not a “prohibited source” — someone who does business or seeks to do business with an official. The lawyers said Gosling offered Shulkin and Bari the tickets “out of friendship and not because of his official position,” adding that she does not do business with the VA.

They also alleged the IG of improperly questioning Gosling and criticized the report for not including a July inquiry Shulkin made into how much he would owe for using tickets that belonged to Gosling’s sister.

The lawyers also said that the report misrepresented the value of the Wimbledon tickets, citing their re-sale, not original, value.

They also took issue with how the IG prominently featured how Gosling could not remember Bari’s first name, saying it was something “designed to make headlines, not objectively report the facts.”

The lawyers noted that memory lapses happen frequently, citing how Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts forgot the oath of office during President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009.

Secretary directed VA employee to plan personal sightseeing

The IG found that Shulkin directed a VA employee to work with his wife in planning personal activities for the couple during the trip, resulting in the “misuse” of the employee’s official time.

The IG reviewed emails from the VA employee that showed the individual “made extensive use of official time for planning leisure activities,” effectively acting “as a personal travel concierge to the Secretary and Dr. Bari.”

“Personal activities planned for the Denmark trip included touring Amalienborg Palace for the Changing of the Guard; visiting Christiansborg Palace, Rosenborg Castle, and Frederiksborg Castle; taking a boat tour of Copenhagen from Nyhavn Canal; and shopping in Copenhagen. There was also an unplanned excursion across the border to Malmo, Sweden, for dinner on their last day, July 14,” the report said. “For the London trip, planned tourist activities included excursions to the Churchill War Rooms, Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, and Westminster Abbey; a Thames River cruise; and visits to St. Paul’s Cathedral, Tower of London (including the Ceremony of the Keys), Tower Bridge, Shakespeare’s Globe, London Eye, and Windsor Castle.”

Shulkin’s lawyers said that emails from the VA employee who planned the tourist activities show he did so “on his own initiative.”

It wasn’t until the employee approached Shulkin with tourist information that he referred that employee to his wife, they said.

The lawyers also pointed out that Shulkin worked on official VA matters during periods of the trip’s itinerary labeled “scheduled leisure,” saying that even as the secretary was touring cultural sites, he took phone calls, answered emails and even gave a radio interview.

Last fall, after The Washington Post reported on details of Shulkin’s European trip, the VA decided to post all of the secretary’s travel itineraries on the VA website in the interest of transparency — making Shulkin the first cabinet secretary to publicly disclose travel details, according to the VA.

Trip cost taxpayers at least $122,334

In total, the 11-day trip cost taxpayers at least $122,334, with “personal conveniences” impacting its overall cost, the report said.

The IG found that the VA paid $1,733 in early hotel check-in fees for six rooms.

The commercial airline travel for the secretary’s chief of staff was modified, increasing the airfare from $1,101 to $4,041. But the IG said records are “insufficient to determine what justification, if any, was provided for this increased ticket price.”

In a response, the secretary’s office said it does not accept the IG’s recommendation that it repay Bari’s $4,312 in travel costs or the cost of the Wimbledon tickets and all other costs associated with that visit. The office says it will consult the VA’s Office of General Counsel to see if they think those costs should be repaid, but said the office needs more time to review the evidence presented by the IG.

In an interview with IG investigators, Shulkin called the European trip “immensely valuable to his work and the VA’s mission,” adding that to suggest it wasn’t “demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the Secretary’s work and the VA’s mission.”

“Secretary Shulkin did nothing wrong in traveling to Europe to meet with, and learn from, America’s allies,” his lawyers said.

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