A senior US official doctored an email last year to justify taking her boss’s wife on a taxpayer-funded trip to Europe that turned into a extravagant vacation—replete with Wimbledon championship tickets, tours of Westminster Abbey and Denmark’s Rosenborg Castle, and of course, a cruise along the Thames.
The trip taken by Veterans Affairs chief David Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari, cost US taxpayers at least $122,334, according to the agency’s inspector general. In a report released Wednesday, Inspector General Michael Missal said an investigation revealed “serious derelictions by VA personnel.”
Naturally, the US Justice Department declined to prosecute.
The story first broke in the pages of the Washington Post this past September. Within days of arriving in Europe for the Ministerial Summit on Veterans Affairs in London, Secretary Shulkin and his wife had taken in a Wimbledon championship tennis match and done a fair amount of shopping and sightseeing during a junket in which the secretary also met with Danish and British officials to discuss veterans’ health issues. An internal investigation was launched after questions were raised by the Post over why exactly taxpayers had picked up the secretary’s wife’s tab.
Fraud, it turns out, is the answer.
Shulkin’s chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, altered emails from an aide to make it appear as if Shulkin was being honored at a dinner in Denmark, the inspector general’s investigation found. Were Shulkin to receive an honor or award of some kind, it would then be appropriate for his wife to accompany him on the trip. There is no indication in the inspector general’s report that the dinner honoring Shulkin ever took place.
In an email to Wright Simpsons, an aide wrote: “We’re working on having a dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence in the honor of SECVA, but that has not been confirmed by US Embassy Copenhagen yet.” (SECVA is the acronym for the secretary of Veterans Affairs.) But Wright Simpson doctored the email to read instead: “We’re having a special recognition dinner at the US Ambassador’s Residence in the honor of SECVA.”
With that, Bari’s trip was approved by ethics officials, convinced she had been invited by a foreign government as part of some official ceremony. Wright Simpsons’ actions may have violated federal criminal statutes, the inspector general wrote. The matter was referred to the Justice Department, which ultimately shrugged.
In a statement to Gizmodo, Rep. Mike Coffman, Republican of Colorado, called on Shulkin to resign. “After closely reviewing the IG report, and the findings that VA Secretary Shulkin and his staff misled ethics officials and lied to investigators, I have concluded that it is time for him to step down,” he said.
Added Coffman: “When there is a culture of corruption and accountability is broken—we end up with Veterans on waiting lists, hospitals delayed and over budget, and unelected bureaucrats who are not accountable to the People. It is time to clean house at the VA and it starts with the resignation of Secretary Shulkin.”
Over the course of the 10-day trip, the Veterans Affairs chief and his wife only spent three-and-a-half days engaging with foreign officials.
What’s more, the Wimbledon tickets they received were going for a minimum of $1,700 apiece, the Post reports; Shulkin’s attorneys, however, claimed they were worth no more than $450 combined.
Shulkin claimed that the tickets were a gift from his wife’s friend, Victoria Gosling, former chief executive of the Invictus Games, a sports tournament for wounded veterans. The tickets may have been accepted on the basis of a “personal friendship.” But during interviews with ethics officials, Gosling failed to recall the wife’s first name.
Gosling later claimed she was frazzled and could not remember Bari’s name because she had been called “unexpectedly” while “driving on a very busy highway.”