Congressional Democrats are accusing Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie of using his Cabinet post to stump for President Donald Trump’s re-election in recent months instead of focusing solely on department needs.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Wilkie and VA oversight agencies, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., charge that Wilkie “may have misused taxpayer funds and other government assets in an effort to benefit the re-election of President Trump and certain Republican candidates seeking office in 2020.”
Veterans Affairs officials dismissed the accusations as a political stunt.
“The lawmakers' partisan letter, which has no Republican support, calls into question who’s being partisan in this situation,” VA press secretary Christina Noel said in a statement. “Secretary Wilkie’s official travel is available online for everyone to see, and these trips to hear firsthand from our employees in the field are a fundamental responsibility of any VA secretary. The notion that these visits are somehow improper is absurd.”
The concerns come just days after the Office of Special Counsel announced that Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue violated laws regarding improper politicking in office. During “official” travel to North Carolina, he advocated on behalf of Trump’s re-election campaign, which the agency said was a violation of the Hatch Act.
In their letter to VA — also sent to the department inspector general and Office of Special Counsel for potential investigation — the Democratic leaders said they have seen similar, troubling patterns in Wilkie’s recent trips.
They cite three recent official trips as a particular cause for concern: one in North Carolina in August, one in Maine in August and a trip to Montana in September. In all three cases, Wilkie appeared in campaign-style events with Republican incumbents.
“Our review of publicly available information, media reports, social media postings, and other data suggests that the travel, events, and other related official actions of VA senior leaders are steering the Department away from its apolitical mission and potentially using department resources in an attempt to tip the scale in favor of the president and other Republican candidates,” the pair wrote.
“Furthermore, efforts to engage in overtly political activity may have come at the expense of legitimate functions of the Department’s mission — to provide health care, benefits and memorial services to our nation’s veterans.”
Takano and Tester also charged VA leadership with blocking congressional Democrats from meetings with VA staff in recent months.
“For example, VA staff were scheduled to participate in an August 19, 2020 virtual townhall event organized by Chairman Takano’s congressional office regarding the Loma Linda, California facility. Shortly before the event, your staff communicated that VA would no longer attend,” the pair wrote.
“However, on that same day VA did participate in a different event involving a Republican Member of Congress in Louisiana physically visiting a VA facility. Inconsistent and politically driven blocking of Members of Congress conducting their oversight and legislative responsibilities is not acceptable or allowed under law.”
The pair has requested a full accounting of VA leadership travel in recent months, as well as information on employee training regarding the Hatch Act. They’ve also asked for information regarding planning of online benefits forums and other outreach events to ensure those are not being used for partisan advantage.
VA officials said all of the secretary’s travel is available online on the department’s web site. Since August, he has traveled to 12 states: North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Tennessee, Connecticut, Montana, Maryland, Colorado, Wyoming, California and Florida.
Trump administration officials have been repeatedly criticized in recent years for ignoring rules regarding the separation of official duties and time spent on political activities.
That includes Trump’s own decision to deliver his closing speech to the Republican National Convention from the White House lawn, a decision critics said violated several existing statutes about use of public land for political activities.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.