WASHINGTON — The chief of staff for Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin abruptly resigned on Friday amid a growing scandal over her involvement in a controversial overseas trip and subsequent claims that her email accounts were hacked by would-be saboteurs.
Vivieca Wright Simpson, who had served at the department for 32 years, had been a target of critics within VA for what they saw as bureaucratic inaction on a host of reforms proposed by President Donald Trump’s administration. She had previously served as Shulkin’s chief of staff at the Veterans Health Administration before he was promoted to the department’s top post.
“She called me this morning and told me she doesn’t want to be in this environment anymore,” Shulkin told Military Times on Friday.
In a scathing report released Wednesday, an inspector general investigation accused her of doctoring emails before the secretary’s July 2017 trip to Denmark to justify bringing his wife along as an official guest. As a result, her airfare and related costs (totaling more than $4,000) were covered by taxpayer funds.
The IG report says the “false representations and alteration of an official record may have violated federal criminal statutes” and has referred the matter to the Department of Justice.
But Shulkin, in an appearance on Capitol Hill on Thursday, suggested that her emails may have been hacked by individuals working against his leadership team.
“I wish I could tell you why someone can take over someone’s email and impersonate them,” he said to reporters after a House Veterans’ Affairs Committee hearing. “We have found that someone has taken over the chief of staff’s email and sending emails as if it’s her. So we need to understand that.”
Shulkin did not say at the time if he expected Wright Simpson to be ultimately cleared of all wrongdoing in the case. He said on Friday that her resignation would not change his plans for a full review of actions of all the staff involved in the travel scandal.
“I’ve publicly said we are going to go along with all of the IG recommendations, and this doesn’t change that,” he said. “No Cabinet secretary can run a department unless the entire team is aligned around the president’s agenda. Moving ahead, that’s going to be essential.”
The IG report also accused Shulkin of improperly accepting tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament from an English businesswoman, improperly using VA staff to coordinate tourist stops on the 10-day trip, and lying about how he handled authorizations for his wife’s travel and non-work time.
The secretary has vigorously disputed those charges, but also agreed to pay back the disputed charges and go along with the inspector general’s recommendations for reforms.
“I do regret the decisions that have been made that have taken the focus off our [VA reform] work,” he told members of the committee on Thursday.
Department of Justice officials thus far have declined to press charges against Wright Simpson for the violations outlined in the report.
Meanwhile, House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Tim Walz, D-Minn., on Thursday sent a letter to Justice officials asking them to look into Shulkin’s allegations of email hacking, calling them “very serious” if true.
The department turmoil comes amid weeks of conflict at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which had been one of the success stories thus far for President Donald Trump’s administration.
But in the last month, rumors of internal discord — and public reports that Wright Simpson and other top officials could be fired to send a message to Shulkin — have raised concerns among lawmakers and veterans organizations.
Shulkin said he is working to keep the department focused on Trump’s reform plans, and not let the travel scandal overwhelm leadership’s focus.
He met with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly on Thursday to discuss the recent controversies, and was told to stay focused on improving health care options for veterans and bettering other VA services even while the internal investigations continue.
Shulkin also said Kelly relayed that the president still has full confidence in his leadership at VA. The secretary added that he’s begun looking for replacements for Wright Simpson.
“We still have a lot of work to do ahead,” he said. “We’ve got to get the right people in place and continue forward.”