President Trump’s executive branch chiefs came under renewed criticism this week over travel expenses billed to the government. In the most recent instance, the head of the Department of Veterans Affairs was accused of a cover-up that involved altering emails relating to a trip that cost taxpayers more than $120,000.
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin had his staff alter an email and made false statements to justify a 10-day European vacation with his wife last year, according to a report from VA Inspector General Michael J. Missal. According to the Washington Post, Shulkin also improperly accepted tickets to the Wimbledon tennis tournament worth thousands of dollars. Shulkin had his staff say that he was accepting an award on the trip to justify bringing his wife, which contributed to the total cost of $122,334.
Shulkin called the portrayal of the trip “entirely inaccurate,” adding that it “reeks of an agenda.” This did not stop Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Colo., from calling for Shulkin’s resignation.
“It’s exactly corruption and abuses like this that doesn’t help our veterans,” wrote Coffman, who served in the Marines. “Secretary Shulkin must RESIGN now. President Trump ran on accountability, it starts here.”
That news came just days after Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt was found to have taken a number of expensive flights, including a first-class flight between New York and Washington, D.C. and a $7,000 business-class trip to Milan. A Washington Post analysis found that travel expenses for Pruitt and his top aide just in the month of June 2017 topped $90,000.
Pruitt and his team defended the travel as necessary due to unspecified threats and uncomfortable confrontations with other passengers when he flew coach. Criticizing a lack of “civility in the marketplace” and a “very toxic” political environment, the EPA head told a New Hampshire newspaper the expensive flights are necessary for safety. Pruitt drew criticism last year for requesting funding for a 24-hour security team and the construction of a $25,000 soundproof phone booth in his office in addition to spending tens of thousands of dollars on military and private flights.
Only one official has resigned so far due to the criticism: former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price, who stepped down in September. Price was pressured after a series of reports that he had taken private planes for short flights, including a brief trip from Washington, D.C., to Nashville, Tenn., to have lunch with his son. Price said he would pay back taxpayers a portion of the hundreds of thousands in expenses he accrued. Officials at both the Treasury and the Health and Human Services departments did not respond to inquiries about whether he had done so.
Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have also had their travel expenses criticized and investigated since taking office last year. Following Price’s resignation, the White House issued a memo stating that “Government-owned, rented, leased, or chartered aircraft should not be used for travel by Government employees except with specific justification” in an attempt to curtail the travel spending.