The Justice Department should look into whether the email account for a top Veterans Affairs staffer had been hacked, and whether someone had been sending emails in her name, the top Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs panel said Thursday.
In a letter to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Rep. Tim Walz of Minnesota asked the department to look into "claims of email intrusion and tampering on government computers and networks," claims that Shulkin made in an interview Wednesday, citing evidence provided by his chief of staff, Vivieca Wright Simpson.
Shulkin has been under recent fire for a more-than-weeklong taxpayer funded trip to England and Denmark last year after an investigation by Veterans Affairs Inspector General Michael Missal found "serious derelictions" in how the trip was handled.
Shulkin has maintained that he did nothing wrong, though he said Thursday during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing that the "optics" of the situation were "not good," and that he regretted overshadowing the work his agency does on behalf of veterans. He said he wants to "make things right" and would follow all of the inspector general's recommendations, including repaying the government for his wife's flights.
In his report, released Wednesday, Missal said Shulkin's chief of staff altered an email and lied, leading the department to spend more than $4,000 on airfare for Shulkin's wife, Merle Bari, for the July 2017 trip.
According to the report, the language that was changed made it seem as though Shulkin was receiving an award from the Danish government, an honor that was used to justify the agency paying for Bari's flight.
But in an interview with Politico, Shulkin said that Wright Simpson denied sending the email with altered information and showed him evidence that her email had been hacked, and that someone had been sending emails in her name. Shulkin described Wright Simpson to Politico as a "37-year government employee with very high ethical standards as far as my dealings with her" and said that "this needs to be looked into."
Walz, the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, called Shulkin's allegations serious in his letter to Sessions.
"These allegations from the VA Secretary that the third-senior most official at VA may have been the target of criminals committing fraud and computer intrusion with the intent of harming her reputation, and that these criminal activities took place on VA computers and networks are very serious," Walz wrote.
"I refer these claims of email intrusion and tampering on government computers and networks, and whether other cyber crimes have been committed against senior level VA officials or on VA computers and its network for your review," Walz continued.
The Department of Veterans Affairs inspector general referred Wright Simpson's behavior to the Justice Department, as Missal said her actions could have violated federal criminal statutes. The Justice Department declined to prosecute, according to Missal. A spokesman for the Department of Veterans Affairs referred questions about the allegation that Wright Simpson's email had been hacked, as well as a potential DOJ investigation, to Shulkin's private lawyers.
Eric Nitz, one of Shulkin's private attorneys, told CNN: "The Secretary became aware of unauthorized emails recently sent from the Chief of Staff's account. This matter is being investigated. At this time, the Secretary knows of no evidence to suggest this incident relates to the events described in the IG's report."
Shulkin told Politico that he spoke with President Donald Trump when he received a draft of the report a week ago. He described Trump as "receptive to hearing what this was about," but said the President "didn't indicate any particular direction about it. He said the President voiced his support for him remaining in the department's top job.
Shulkin is not the first Trump official to be mired in controversy over travel practices. He is one of five current or former Cabinet secretaries to be investigated over travel, including Tom Price, the former Health and Human Services secretary who resigned in September over his use of chartered flights for official travel.