Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin was remorseful on Thursday, promising to pay back parts of his taxpayer-funded travel to Europe last year, which included sightseeing with his wife.
“I do regret the decisions that have been made that have taken the focus off that important work,” Shulkin said Thursday at a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the VA budget.
“I’ve made the decision to reimburse the Treasury, to follow the [VA inspector general] recommendations. And I’m — I’m committed to doing what we have to do to focus on veterans and make this better,” he added.
VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal released a report on Wednesday that said Shulkin had misled the agency’s ethics office about the trip to Europe, where he and his wife attended a Wimbledon game.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Phil Roe (R-TN), mentioned the report in his opening remarks, commenting that he was “disappointed” in the allegations raised in the report and that he has asked for additional documentation from the IG.
“I’ve gotten to know you well over the last year and — actually two years — and I believe your intentions to serve and care for our nation’s veterans are well clear. You have that mission at heart,” Roe said.
“With that said, as public officials, we’re all expected to be held to a higher standard and be good stewards of tax dollars. I encourage you to take every step to address the findings of this report and make any changes necessary.”
The committee’s ranking member, Tim Walz (D-MN), gently chided Shulkin, saying that his intentions to help veterans is clear, and the trust the committee has in him is “strong.”
“But,” he added, “we do need to address these allegations.”
Shulkin was the only Obama holdover to be appointed as an agency head.
Shulkin said he has already written a check to the Treasury. But he also defended the Europe trip as “essential employee travel.”
“I believe that this was essential travel. This was the Five Eyes Conference, our allies who fight alongside of us in every war: Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. We have had this conference for 43 straight years. It has been attended by every V.A. secretary,” he said.
“If the United States, as the largest of those military forces, do not go to talk about veterans’ health issues — this conference was on veterans’ mental health. If the United States does not participate, that ends — that conference ends,” he said.
“I planned on going to it for a year and a half, because we plan these things ahead of time. But I do recognize the optics of this are not good. I accept responsibility for that. And — but I do believe it’s important that the United States continue its work with its allied countries.”
Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), who has called for Shulkin’s resignation, fired back, “It’s not the optics that are not good. It’s the facts that are not good.”
Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) called the misuse of taxpayer money a “significant breach for the trust we place in public officials.”
The IG report said Shulkin’s chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, altered an aide’s email to make it look as though he was receiving an award, which would allow for his wife to be on the trip. Her airfare cost more than $4,300, according to the report.