WASHINGTON – 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.
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.
Shulkin’s six-person traveling party included his acting undersecretary of health and her husband, his chief of staff and another aide, the itinerary says. They were accompanied by a security detail of as many as six people.
The agency said Friday that the government paid airfare for Merle Bari, Shulkin’s wife, because she was traveling on “approved invitational orders.” The government also provided a per diem for her meals, the agency said.
Shulkin traveled on a commercial flight, 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 great 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 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.
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 a statement.
“These were important trips with our allies to discuss best practices for taking care of veterans,” Cashour said.