VA Secretary David Shulkin takes responsibility after a report found he improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets and taxpayer-funded airfare for his wife during a trip last year. He says he’s eager to move forward and focus on fixing the VA.
WASHINGTON — One of the top deputies to VA Secretary David Shulkin has actively lobbied Capitol Hill to demand his boss’s resignation, according to two people with knowledge of the effort.
John Ullyot, the VA’s assistant secretary for public affairs, asked a senior aide at the House Committee on Veterans Affairs to persuade lawmakers to call the White House and say they wanted Shulkin out, said both individuals, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the situation.
The move was unsuccessful — but audacious since Ullyot is the secretary’s highest ranking aide tasked with publicly defending him and the agency. It is also the most striking evidence to date that some of Shulkin’s own staff are trying to oust him.
Ullyot denies it happened. But the two sources said he made the request in a call initiated by VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour on Feb. 15, the day after the release of an inspector general’s report that concluded Shulkin had misused taxpayer dollars during a European trip last year.
Shulkin had appeared at a congressional hearing that morning and raised the possibility that an aide’s email account had been hacked. The inspector general had concluded the aide had doctored an email to get improper approval for Shulkin’s wife to join him on the trip at taxpayers’ expense.
On the call, Cashour criticized Shulkin for raising concerns about hacking and told the senior aide that it would reflect poorly on the agency. He then put his supervisor, Ullyot, on the line, who asked the aide for help in an effort to oust Shulkin.
Cashour and Ullyot, who declined to be interviewed, provided a joint statement acknowledging they made the call but denying they sought help to push Shulkin out. “That simply never happened, and the allegation is ridiculous,” the statement said.
The two people with knowledge of the effort said Ullyot expressed confidence on the call that President Trump would fire Shulkin by the following Tuesday. But he told the aide it would be helpful if lawmakers on the committee called for his resignation and contacted the White House to create more pressure and ensure the president followed through. And he said such pressure would make the firing a virtual certainty, the government sources said.
Cashour and Ullyot maintained the purpose of the call was to inform the aide that “we had no evidence of email hacking.”
“Our message was simple: be careful on advancing the hacking allegations publicly, as they were thus far baseless,” Cashour and Ullyot said in their statement. “The purpose of the call was to protect the secretary, the department and members of the committee from continuing to give credence to allegations that may later be disproven.”
Cashour previously worked as press secretary for the House veterans’ committee from 2013 until January this year. He became VA press secretary in June.
Ullyot worked on Trump’s campaign and his transition team before becoming assistant VA secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs in April.
A power struggle between a group of political appointees and Shulkin and his longtime aides at the agency has divided the top ranks of the VA for months. But it spilled into public view following the release of the investigation report, when Shulkin told reporters the political appointees were undermining him.
The VA inspector general concluded in the report that Shulkin improperly accepted Wimbledon tickets and airfare for his wife at taxpayer expense, he spent nearly half the 10-day trip to Denmark and London last year sightseeing and he used an aide on official time to plan the leisure activities.
Shulkin first blasted the findings as unfair and inaccurate, but then expressed regret and agreed to repay the cost of the airfare and tennis tickets.
He told USA TODAY on Monday that he has the backing of the White House and planned to rid the agency of staffers who are not committed to supporting him and his agenda.
“I am committed to getting us back on track, and the only way I know how to get us back on track is to make sure there is only one agenda in this organization, and that’s to serve veterans,” he said. “And anybody who is trying to distract from that, I have to make sure that they understand that we’re not going to have tolerance for that.”
Shulkin could not be reached for comment Wednesday on this story.
The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., appears firm in his support of Shulkin continuing in his post.
“I know there was a lot of drama last week in Washington,” he told attendees at an American Legion conference in Washington Tuesday. “Secretary Shulkin has done a phenomenal job, and I want to tell you all that I will walk hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm to get the work done that we need to.”
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