Four Democrats, including the ranking member of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said Thursday they are “troubled” by Veterans Affairs (VA) Secretary David Shulkin ’s “overly defensive” response to a scathing inspector general report about the secretary’s trip to Europe last year.
In a letter to Shulkin, the senators said he needs to officially tell the inspector general he will comply with all recommendations.
“We have read the inspector general’s (IG) report related to your international trip in the summer of 2017 and want to be clear about our disappointment in what was clearly a considerable lack of judgment,” they wrote. “Further, we are troubled by the overly defensive response from you and Deputy Secretary [Thomas] Bowman as published in the report, which indicated a lack of understanding or appreciation for the high standard to which you are held as a Cabinet official.
“To restore the trust of veterans, taxpayers and Congress, it is absolutely critical that you officially respond to the IG and confirm your immediate intention to comply with all five recommendations, to the fullest extent possible.”
The letter was signed by Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), committee member Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.).
The VA’s inspector general issued a report last week finding that Shulkin misused taxpayer dollars during a trip to Europe by spending much of the time sightseeing instead of conducting official business; having a VA employee use official time acting as a personal travel planner; and inappropriately accepting Wimbledon tennis match tickets.
The report also said Shulkin’s then-chief of staff doctored an email to gain approval to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Shulkin’s wife to accompany him.
In his official response to the inspector general, Shulkin submitted a 16-page rebuttal from his lawyers, as well as his own letter that said the report “draws conclusions based on subjective and arbitrary criteria.”
“It is outrageous that you would portray my wife and me as attempting to take advantage of the government,” Shulkin wrote.
Bowman also submitted an official response letter questioning the objectivity of the report.
Once the report became public, Shulkin said he repaid his wife’s travel and that he would follow the inspector general’s other recommendations. But he’s also suggested since the report’s release that the doctored email was the result of a hack and has blamed criticism on internal divisions at the department and with White House officials.
In their letter, which a spokeswoman for Veterans’ Affairs Committee Democrats said was written after the senators “fully reviewed” the report, the senators asked Shulkin for the total amount he has repaid for the trip.
They also urge a “full and complete” audit of all expense, authorization and documents associated with the trip.
The senators also asked Shulkin to task Bowman with a broad, top-to-bottom review of the department’s travel policies.
“If these policies are found to be lacking, we expect that clarifying guidance will be issued and updated training will be provided,” they wrote. “If, however, there were appropriate policies in place that were not followed, we expect that administrative action be considered against any and all levels of employees who did not comply with guidelines or who may have pressured others not to comply.”