VA chief took in Wimbledon, river cruise on European work trip; wife’s expenses covered by taxpayers

 In World

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Nearly three days into a trip to Europe this past July, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin had attended a Wimbledon championship tennis match, toured Westminster Abbey and taken a cruise on the Thames.

The 10-day trip was not entirely a vacation. Shulkin was in Europe for meetings with Danish and British officials about veterans’ health issues, so taxpayers picked up part of the tab.

Yet he and his wife spent about half their time sightseeing, including shopping and touring historic sites, according to an itinerary obtained by The Washington Post and confirmed by a U.S. official familiar with their activities. 

The federal government paid for the flights for Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari, and provided a per-diem reimbursement for their meals and other expenses, VA said Friday. An agency spokesman did not respond to questions about why Bari qualified for the reimbursements and taxpayer-funded airfare, other than to say she was traveling on “approved invitational orders” and had “temporary duty” travel expenses.

The agency also did not respond to questions about the cost of the flights and the total reimbursement. If Bari took the full per diem every day of the trip, she could have been reimbursed as much as $3,600 under federal guidelines.

Trump administration Cabinet members have faced mounting scrutiny over their use of private and government jets in recent days, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned Friday amid criticism of his use of taxpayer-funded charter flights. Shulkin traveled on a commercial flight, though, and he was seated in coach on at least one leg.

The European visit, however, puts a focus on the mixing of business and leisure during these trips, which can come at considerable taxpayer expense. Shulkin’s immediate predecessor, Robert McDonald, took no foreign work trips, according to a former VA official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Shulkin’s six-person traveling party included his acting undersecretary of health and her husband, Shulkin’s chief of staff and another aide, the itinerary says. They were accompanied by a security detail of as many as six people.

Shulkin’s trip came less than two weeks after he signed a memo instructing top VA staffers to determine whether “employee travel in their organization is essential.”

“I expect this will result in decreased employee travel and generate savings within the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Shulkin wrote.

In response to questions from The Post, VA announced Friday that the agency will begin posting details of the secretary’s travel online, including itineraries, and disclosing any use of government or private aircraft. That information had not previously been disclosed publicly.

All of Shulkin’s activities on the European trip, including his attendance at Wimbledon, “were reviewed and approved by ethics counsel,” VA press secretary Curt Cashour said in an emailed statement.

“These were important trips with our allies to discuss best practices for taking care of veterans,” Cashour said. “The secretary has been transparent on his down-time activities that were similar to what he would have done with his family over a weekend in the U.S.”

Cashour said the husband of Poonam Alaigh, the acting undersecretary for health, paid his own expenses.

In an interview Friday, Alaigh defended the trip as a “tremendous and valuable exchange of ideas” with British and Danish counterparts.

“Were there some breaks we got? Sure,” she said. “But they were reasonable. They were not at the expense of what we had committed to do: representing our country and showing our commitment to veterans.”

Alaigh said the delegation took an unplanned trip across the border to Sweden one evening.

Senior members of Congress, including two key Republicans, have expressed concerns about travel by officials in President Trump’s Cabinet. The leaders of the House Oversight Committee, Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), wrote to the White House this week to demand records on air travel for executive officials since Trump’s inauguration, saying that official travel “by no means should include personal use.”

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