VA chief says taxpayers didn't pick up wife's Europe expenses
By LISA REIN | The Washington Post | Published: November 9, 2017
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin said Thursday that, contrary to a report in The Washington Post, taxpayers did not cover his wife's expenses on a July trip to Europe that mixed official travel with sightseeing.
"There was nothing inappropriate about this," Shulkin said, speaking at a Washington Post Live event on veterans' issues. He rebuked the news organization for what he called "poor reporting."
The information The Post included in its Sept. 29 report came from a VA spokesman - on the record, in emails. In those emails, spokesman Curt Cashour said the federal government paid for the flights for Shulkin's wife, Merle Bari, and provided a per-diem reimbursement for her meals and other expenses.
Bari's "travel was paid for by VA and was approved before the trip as part of an ethics review," Cashour wrote, referring to the airfare. He added that "meals and incidentals were covered under per-diem for the secretary's wife."
Cashour wrote that Bari qualified for the reimbursements and taxpayer-funded airfare because she was traveling on "approved invitational orders" and had "temporary duty" travel expenses. He did not respond to questions seeking elaboration.
On Thursday, Cashour did not respond to emailed questions seeking to square the information he provided on Sept. 29 with Shulkin's statements at the veterans' event.
He referred a reporter to a video clip of the event. At the event, Shulkin did not say who paid for his wife's airfare.
The agency's inspector general, Michael Missal, is investigating the trip and its costs.
The couple's six-person traveling party included VA's then-acting undersecretary of health and her husband, Shulkin's chief of staff, and another aide. They were accompanied by a security detail of six additional people.
Shulkin is one of five members of President Donald Trump's cabinet whose travel has come under scrutiny, either because they have flown on military or private planes, or mixed official business with political events or with leisure time.
At the event Thursday, Shulkin said he spent 40 hours at a conference in London discussing veterans' mental health issues with representatives of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In past years, the VA secretary has attended the conference.
"I got tremendous value from this conference," he said.
Shulkin and his traveling party also attended meetings in Denmark from July 12 to 14. Officials in Denmark said VA officials approached them about scheduling those meetings.
The bookend events left Shulkin with four days in between, according to his itinerary. He attended a ceremony one of those nights at which a British veteran of the war in Afghanistan was honored, and a meeting the next night at the British prime minister's residence.
He and his wife also attended Wimbledon for one of the prized moments of the tennis year: In the women's final, American Venus Williams lost her chance at a sixth title to Spain's Garbiñe Muguruza.
Shulkin said Thursday that he bought the tickets to the tournament.
"We went with friends. There was no business connection to that," he said. "There was no government money. . . . Last time I checked, there's nothing illegal about going to enjoy a sporting event."