The chief of staff to Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin altered an email and made false statements so that taxpayers would foot the bill for the secretary’s wife on a luxury, 10-day trip to Europe last summer, according to the agency’s inspector general.
Vivieca Wright Simpson, the VA’s third-most senior official, doctored language in an email from another aide who was planning the trip to make it look like Shulkin was getting an award from the Danish government.
That was an attempt to justify paying for Shulkin’s wife’s travel — including $4,300 for her plane tickets — Inspector General Michael Missal wrote in his report.
Simpson, Shulkin’s chief of staff, pushed for Shulkin to get an award from the Danes, which she thought would allow the secretary’s wife, Merle Bari, to join her hubby on the taxpayers’ dime.
In emails to James Gough, the Shulkin aide who was coordinating with the European veterans officials, Simpson wanted the award confirmed — but Gough said there were no plans to give him an award.
“We’re working on having a dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence in honor SEVCA [the secretary] but that has not been confirmed by US Embassy Copenhagen yet,” Gough wrote.
The IG said that Simpson then altered the email to make look like Gough had said, “We’re having a special recognition dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence in the honor of SECVA.”
Shulkin didn’t get an award on the trip.
The IG referred the matter to the Justice Department for possible criminal prosecution, but it declined to press charges against Simpson.
She told investigators that she did not recall whether she altered the email, Missal wrote.
In a second interview, he wrote, she did not directly respond to questions about the email, repeatedly saying “I responded appropriately to the email.”
The report also said that Shulkin and his staff misled the agency’s ethics officials and the public about details of the trip to Denmark and England, which included pricey tickets to Wimbeldon tennis matches, tours of Westminster Abbey and Denmark’s Rosenborg Castle as well as a cruise along the Thames.
Shulkin improperly accepted the tickets to Wimbledon as a gift, the report said.
“Although the [inspector general’s office] cannot determine the value VA gained from the Secretary and his delegation’s three and a half days of meetings in Copenhagen and London at a cost of at least $122,334, the investigation revealed serious derelictions by VA personnel,” Missal wrote.
Shulkin is one of five current and former Trump administration Cabinet members being probed by agency inspectors general over their travel expenses, an issue that forced the resignation of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price last year, the Washington Post reported.
Shulkin accused Missal of playing politics, saying the report “reeks of an agenda.”
“It is outrageous that you would portray my wife and me as attempting to take advantage of the government,” he wrote in a response.