US & Canada

US Veterans Affairs official steps down amid travel scandal

Vivieca Wright Simpson Image copyright Department of Veteran Affairs
Image caption Vivieca Wright Simpson had worked with Secretary Shulkin for the past two years

The chief of staff for Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin retired on Friday amid accusations that she doctored emails, media reports say.

The agency's inspector general accused Vivieca Wright Simpson of writing false emails so that air fares to Europe for the secretary's wife would be paid for with public money.

Ms Wright Simpson allegedly got tickets worth $4,300 (£3,100) covered.

She has disputed the allegations, according to the New York Times.

Ms Wright Simpson's 32-year-service with the agency ended on Friday when she retired.

"She called me this morning and told me she doesn't want to be in this environment anymore," Mr Shulkin told the Military Times.

The announcement comes only two days after a report released by the Veterans Affairs (VA) administration's internal inspector general, Michael Missal, recommended she be disciplined.

The report alleged she changed an email to make it appear that her boss and his wife, Merle Bari, had been officially invited to Europe for an honorary dinner in Denmark when they had not.

But Ms Wright Simpson told the New York Times that the "special recognition dinner" she mentioned in the email did take place.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Mr Shulkin and his wife Merle Bari

Mr Shulkin denies any wrongdoing but has reimbursed the government for his wife's air fare, according to the Military Times.

"I do regret the decisions that have been made that have taken the focus off our [VA reform] work", he said on Thursday, before Ms Wright Simpson's retirement.

Five Trump cabinet officials have faced ethics probes related to travel costs.

Mr Shulkin remains under fire for other allegations in the report.

Mr Missal accused the secretary of improperly accepting Wimbledon tennis tickets from an organiser for the Invictus Games - a sports tournament for wounded veterans founded by the UK's Prince Harry.

Veterans Affairs officials had told ethics advisers that the tickets were a gift from a friend, and thus allowed under government rules.

Mr Missal also alleged that a top Veterans Affairs aide made "extensive use of official time" to organise leisure activities for the secretary and his wife, and essentially acted as his "personal travel concierge".

"This was time that should have been spent conducting official VA business," the inspector wrote in the 84-page report.

Some members of Congress have called on Mr Shulkin to resign.

In a response to the report, dated 12 February, Mr Shulkin said the inspector's findings were "entirely inaccurate".

"Your staff's conduct related to this investigation reeks of an agenda," he said.

Mr Shulkin is the only Obama administration holdover in President Trump's cabinet.

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