Shulky, say it ain’t true!

Here we go again. Another cabinet level member of the Trump administration under the magnifying glass for travel practices. Just to be clear, Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin forcefully and unequivocally rebuts charges against him by Inspector General Michael Missal. Luckily, when IGs publish reports, we get to see the responses from those involved.

I’m referring to yesterday’s report, widely reported as breaking news by major outlets, that Shulkin had cheated on government travel. The story was overwhelmed by the high school shooting in Florida. But the main issues are these:

  • Shulkin’s wife, Dr. Merle Bari, accompanied him on a trip to Europe, and the VA paid for her airplane ticket. (Shulkin says she flew coach).
  • Chief of Staff Viveca Wright Simpson reworded some email language. The IG interpreted this as twisting facts to justify Bari’s joining the trip as an invitational official.
  • The trip involved several officials, lasted 10 days, and cost more than $122,000.
  • Shulkin initially was going to London for a biennial summit on veterans’ matters. He extended it backwards to visit Danish health officials to see how they deal with vets. That left a few days’ of free time in between. Shulkin says he worked on VA matters at those times.
  • Shulkin and his wife accepted tickets to Wimbledon tennis matches from Victoria Gosling, a U.K. citizen. She’d been CEO of the 2016 Invictus Games, an international sports meet for wounded veterans.

(In the ensuing hours, Shulkin took some of Missal’s recommendations. USA Today reports he’s paid back the VA for his wife’s expenses. He’s expressed regret over the tennis tickets).

I read both the allegations and the rebuttals. Read separately, both are convincing. A judge would have a hard time rendering a decision if this were a trial. The altered email by the chief of staff has become, to the Washington media chorus, a deceitful lie so the secretary could rob the coffers to benefit his wife. I read both versions, and — without taking sides —  I think it’s also possible to interpret it as Wright Simpson simply clarifying what she thought she read. The resulting email went to the ethics official, Tammy Kennedy, who approved the travel for Bari.

It’s a Washington classic, insofar as these matters become proxies for larger dramas. Almost autonomically, calls for Shulkin’s resignation emanated from some congressional back-benchers. Others see it as part of a pattern because several other Trump administration secretaries have committed travel improprieties, or alleged ones. One resigned over them. It’s a legitimate issue, and the administration needs to deal with it comprehensively.

Neither Missal nor Shulkin are lightweights or fools. Missal, appointed in the late stages of the Obama administration, is the first permanent IG the department had had in years. He was a senior counsel at the SEC during the Reagan Administration. Earlier, he was a Carter White House staffer. In the Shulkin travel and other matters, he’s managed to marshal up thorough and hard-hitting reports quickly. 

Shulkin still sees patients as VA secretary. But he’s an old hand at administration of large medical bureaucracies. That’s like leading a college or university: The politics are fierce and the knives long. Plus he was VA’s top health official for a year and a half before becoming secretary. He’s a medical man, but he can turn a phrase. In his letter to Missal, Shulkin states: “When someone shines a flashlight on a problem at the VA, I have [publicly] invited floodlight scrutiny of the issue.” That’s good! He also chides Missal, stating, in part, “[Y]ou have treated the staff of the Veterans Administration, my wife, and my friends with extreme contempt, bordering on badgering and harassment. Your staff’s conduct related to this investigation reeks of an agenda. Your portrayal of this trip is overall and entirely inaccurate.”

I sense this one will blow over. Personally, I wish Shulkin had told Gosling: “Thanks for the tickets, but let me pay for them.” Shulkin says they were a gift from a friend who has no business or potential business before the VA. But when you’re the secretary, things are different. As for attendance at the short Copenhagen conference, he should have caught a plane the night before — business class on a lie-flat bed — gone and come home. But I don’t think Shulkin’s exhibited a pattern of corruption or any sort of negligence in the job as VA secretary.

As for Missal, he simply followed up on a whistleblower complaint. But the 97-page report does read somewhat like overkill, anti-aircraft ordnance aimed at a sparrow. In trying to nail down testimony from an elusive Gosling, IG reseachers reached her on a surprise telephone call. She couldn’t remember Bari’s first name, after claiming to be friends with the Shulkins. The incident is entered as proof … of what, exactly?

Some cases of bad behavior are clear. The Navy’s 7th Fleet officers taking huge bribes in the Fat Leonard is a case in point. But often, as in this case, they really aren’t so clear, nor indicative of much more than questionable situational judgment. The main thing is that it not detract from the important, ongoing work of fixing VA.