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David Shulkin is the sixth Trump Cabinet member questioned about pricey travel. That’s ‘not normal.’

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin is in trouble for a pricey trip to Europe on the taxpayer’s dime, according to the agency’s internal watchdog. Shulkin is not the first member of President Trump's Cabinet getting heat for high-priced travel. John Yang reports and Judy Woodruff discusses the ethics concerns with Lisa Rein of The Washington Post and Kathleen Clark of the Washington University in St. Louis.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now we return to our second main story of the day, the latest member of President Trump’s Cabinet getting heat for high-priced travel.

    John Yang breaks down the details.

  • David Shulkin:

    Good afternoon, everybody.

  • John Yang:

    Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and his staff came in for harsh criticism from the agency’s internal watchdog over an 11-day trip last year to Denmark and the United Kingdom.

    The cost to taxpayers? More than $122,000. It included official business, including meetings with Danish officials who provide health care for veterans, a lunch with Danish health care executives, and a conference in London with senior officials from U.S. allies who also deal with veterans issues.

    But the report also details some of Shulkins’ leisure activity, attending the women’s championship match at the Wimbledon tennis tournament, a tour of Westminster Abbey in London, and a cruise down the Thames River.

    The department’s inspector general said Shulkin improperly accepted the Wimbledon tickets and directed department staff to plan a sightseeing schedule. He also said that Shulkin’s chief of staff misrepresented details about the trip, going so far as to alter an e-mail, in order to allow taxpayers to pay for Shulkin’s wife’s expenses.

    The inspector general said Shulkin should reimburse the Treasury for the cost of his wife’s travel and should offer to pay his Wimbledon host for the cost of the tickets, and, if she declines, pay that money to the U.S. government.

    In a letter to the inspector general, Shulkin said a draft report doesn’t appear to be accurate or objective, and it contains the thread of bias.

    Today, a department spokesman said, “We look forward to reviewing the report in more detail before determining an appropriate response.”

    Shulkin is not the first Trump Cabinet member to be questioned about travel practices. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt are both under investigation by their department’s internal watchdogs. Last year, Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price quit after his use of private planes was reported.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m John Yang.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    We explore these violations further now with reporter Lisa Rein of The Washington Post and Kathleen Clark. She’s a professor of law at Washington University in Saint Louis. She works on issues of government ethics.

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    Lisa Rein, you’re the reporter here. I’m going to start with you.

    So, what Secretary Shulkin is saying is there is a — he called it the thread of bias in this report, it doesn’t appear to be accurate or objective?

    So, how do we know what the inspector general found is accurate?

  • Lisa Rein:

    Well, Secretary Shulkin has pushed back very, very hard against this report. He’s hired a team of lawyers. He’s hired a P.R. firm, which is pretty unusual.

    He — some things, he doesn’t deny. For example, his chief of staff, who the inspector general said doctored an e-mail to ensure that Shulkin’s wife would be able to travel to Europe expense-free and on the government’s dime, that wasn’t denied.

    It’s mostly the Wimbledon tickets. The inspector general said that this was an improper gift basically from a sports promoter who had been a CEO of Prince Harry’s Invictus Games and who had a reason to potentially influence the secretary, because the Invictus Games are for veterans.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Lisa Rein:

    But — and the laws are very clear that if you have a close friendship with the person giving you a gift, then you’re fine. And so it was really fascinating.

    The watchdog had to parse whether the Shulkins were close friends with this promoter, this British woman. And the inspector general said, no, actually, it didn’t seem they really had much contact, aside from a few meetings at big events.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Which suggested there was something wrong here.

    So, Kathleen Clark, how clear are the rules for these Cabinet secretaries and other top officials in the administration about what’s appropriate and what isn’t?

  • Kathleen Clark:

    The rules on accepting gifts are actually quite clear and detailed, and they apply not just to Cabinet secretaries, but just about every official in the executive branch.

    And so officials are encouraged to seek advice from designated ethics counselors if they have questions about how the rules apply. And so what we see here is that the chief of staff allegedly manipulated that advice process in order to get the answer she wanted.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, and just to get back to the point that Lisa made about the friendship, how much would it matter whether he was already good friends with or not the someone who did him a big favor, gave him these tickets?

  • Kathleen Clark:

    Yes.

    There’s an exception in the regulations that allows an employee to accept a gift that would otherwise be prohibited if the gift is based on personal friendship. And, in fact, as Lisa Rein indicated, the secretary does push back on that, providing even an affidavit or a declaration from this sports promoter attesting to her friendship, not so much with the secretary, but with his wife.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I’m just being reminded by our producer that Secretary Shulkin has — he’s told The Army Times that he will pay back whatever money he owes, even though he continues to dispute these allegations.

    Lisa Rein, how do these allegations against the secretary fit in to what we have seen take place with other top Cabinet officials in the Trump administration?

  • Lisa Rein:

    Right.

    So, this became a big story last fall, when the former secretary of health and human services, Tom Price — Politico did some great reporting on this. He was taking private charts pretty much everywhere he was going, which was to a lot of places, because you travel a lot as a Cabinet secretary.

    I would say this is certainly not as egregious in the public’s mind as that. Price was forced to resign. But then you have inspectors general in three other agencies who have looked into — well, you have Ryan Zinke, the interior secretary, who is under investigation now for travel that mostly involved mixing official Interior events with political appearances.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Lisa Rein:

    You have EPA Secretary Scott Pruitt, who on — we just reported a few days ago pretty much always travels first class or business class wherever he’s going, goes home to Oklahoma a lot. That’s under investigation.

    And then you had Steve Mnuchin, a treasury secretary who has — the I.G. has already reported in his case he took about $800,000 worth of military flights.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And that was cleared, as we — and he was cleared.

  • Lisa Rein:

    It was cleared, although the inspector general had some questions about it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Kathleen Clark, how unusual is it? Compare this administration and these investigations to previous administrations. How do they compare?

  • Kathleen Clark:

    This is not normal.

    It’s not in any way normal to have four or five Cabinet secretaries under investigation for their travel habits. It’s also not normal for the Cabinet secretaries to disregard the public fisc in the way that they have.

    And so I think it’s part of sort of a larger pattern in this administration. And I whether they are taking their marching orders really from the president in terms of how careless he has been or how free he has been in his travel, which has caused the Secret Service to incur extra expenses.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    You mean because he travels many weekends to one of his homes either in Florida or New Jersey or…

  • Kathleen Clark:

    Precisely.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And so forth.

    I just want to come back to this question, Kathleen Clark, about how clear these rules are, because we’re hearing about a lot of pushback from Secretary Shulkin. Is there room to argue about the kinds of allegations we’re discussing here?

  • Kathleen Clark:

    There appears to be a factual dispute in this case regarding the Wimbledon tickets.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Kathleen Clark:

    The inspector general has concluded that the secretary didn’t have a close friendship with this promoter.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Kathleen Clark:

    And he’s pointing out that — and he’s provided facts suggesting that he did.

    So, you know, what I would say is that the rules are clear, but the rules also have exceptions. And so when you combine a strict rule with an exception, then how they meet can be in dispute, as it is in this case.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    As it is in this case.

    But, as we said, as you said, Lisa Rein, several investigations under way right now.

  • Lisa Rein:

    And it’s also a question of optics.

    High-level officials who are in a presidential Cabinet need to be thinking about optics. And that’s, you know, what some people might argue Mr. Shulkin didn’t think about.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And he’s made his way into the headlines today, or certainly this story has.

  • Lisa Rein:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lisa Rein with The Washington Post, Kathleen Clark with the University of Washington, thank you very much.

  • Kathleen Clark:

    Thank you.

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