The Veterans Affairs Secretary David J. Shulkin’s chief of staff doctored an email and made false statements so the secretary’s wife could use taxpayer money for her 10-day trip to Europe, an investigation found.
WASHINGTON — Two key veterans’ organizations are urging President Trump to keep Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin in place despite mistakes he made in misusing taxpayer dollars during a European trip last year.
One of the oldest organizations representing veterans, AmVets, came out Sunday praising the work Shulkin has done.
“Please allow VA Secretary Shulkin the space necessary to do his job and continue your focus on fixing the VA,” Joe Chenelly, executive director of AmVets said in a statement directed at the president.
Vietnam Veterans of America echoed those thoughts and also expressed support for VA Deputy Secretary Tom Bowman, who has been on the job only since August.
“Keep both David Shulkin and Tom Bowman and see where we are in a year,” said Rick Weidman, co-founder of the organization. “It hasn’t been long enough.”
Veterans groups had largely been silent since the VA inspector general released a report Wednesday concluding Shulkin had improperly accepted tickets to Wimbledon and airfare for his wife during a 10-day trip to Denmark and London last July.
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Shulkin at first said the findings were unfair and inaccurate but then expressed regret for the errors he and his staff made and reimbursed the government.
But days of turmoil followed. On Friday, his chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson, announced she is retiring after 32 years at the agency. Investigators had determined she misled ethics officials by doctoring an email to get clearance for Shulkin’s wife to travel with him at taxpayers’ expense.
The White House within hours installed a new chief of staff, Peter O’Rourke, who was a member of Trump’s transition team and previously created a new Office of Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at the agency.
But the fate of Shulkin remained unclear over the weekend. On Friday, he told USA TODAY he remains committed to staying on and fulfilling President Trump’s agenda.
Some veterans’ groups still are taking a wait-and-see approach. Garry Augustine, executive director of Disabled American Veterans, said he is generally supportive of Shulkin but is waiting to learn more about what has transpired at the agency.
“We’re still learning about all the particulars of the story. It’s still unfolding,” he said in an interview late Sunday. “What we know so far, is that the secretary used some bad judgment, obviously, but, you know, in the big picture, what he’s done for the VA we believe is moving in the right direction, …and we would like to see this resolved so that he can get back to moving the VA in a direction we think is the right direction.”
Shulkin, the only holdover from the Obama administration in Trump’s Cabinet, is uniquely vulnerable, and he said last week that he believes he is being targeted and undermined by a group of VA staffers installed in the top ranks of the agency by the White House. His supporters have said they are exploiting the inspector general’s findings to try and have Shulkin ousted and push the VA toward privatization.
Chenelly, the AmVets director, said he believes the future of the agency is at stake.
“Now, the question, after over a full year of progress and tremendous strides in accountability, opening access to care, improving access to benefits, tackling mental health, and strengthening relations with stakeholders, is whether the President is ready to turn the keys to the VA over to ideologues who have designs on having VA go the way of railroads, airports, energy companies, postal services, and other businesses that have been privatized — and have also proven profitable for a few,” he said in the statement.
“VA Secretary Shulkin is learning a tough lesson in politics: If you want to make enemies, try to change something. But he will not be the only one who pays if the President allows the VA to be treated, once again, like a political football that keeps getting punted each time a new VA Secretary is deposed.”
The VA has had three secretaries in the past four years. Eric Shinseki resigned in 2014 amid revelations that VA schedulers were keeping secret wait lists and manipulating appointment records to make it look like veterans weren’t waiting as long for care as they were. At least 40 died while they waited for appointments.
President Obama then picked former Procter & Gamble chief Bob McDonald to take over. Shulkin was sworn in as his undersecretary for health in July 2015. When Trump took office, McDonald left and the president selected Shulkin to lead the VA. He won Senate confirmation in a unanimous, 100-0 vote in February 2017.
A White House spokesman did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment late Sunday. Trump remained at his Florida estate Mar-a-Lago over the weekend. He has no events listed on his public schedule Monday. He is slated to return to Washington Monday evening.
Follow Donovan Slack on Twitter: @DonovanSlack
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