The third most senior official at the Department of Veterans Affairs is stepping down amid findings she misled ethics officials to secure approval for VA Secretary David Shulkin’s wife to accompany him on taxpayer-funded trip to Europe.
Vivieca Wright Simpson, Shulkin’s chief of staff, told colleagues Friday morning that she is retiring after 32 years at the agency and more than two years as Shulkin’s most senior aide.
The announcement came two days after the VA inspector general released recommendations that she be disciplined for doctoring an email to an ethics lawyer to show Shulkin was getting special recognition or an award during the trip to Denmark and London last year, the criteria for clearing his wife’s flights on the public’s dime.
Wright Simpson declined to comment.
Shulkin confirmed the move to USA TODAY and said he intends to continue in his post and remains commited to fulfilling President Trump’s agenda in overhauling the VA.
He apologized earlier this week for mistakes he and his staff made in planning and taking the trip last July. He reimbursed the government for his wife’s airfare and is seeking to reimburse a British veterans’ advocate for Wimbledon tickets he and his wife accepted improperly.
“I am committed to continuing the work that I came here to do, which is to support the president’s agenda to reform the VA and fix the VA the way that veterans deserve, the care and services they’ve earned,” he said. “And I am going to remain focused on that task and I am not going to get distracted from what we have to do.”
Late Friday, the VA web site listed a new chief of staff, Peter O’Rourke, previously the leader of the agency’s Accountability and Whistleblower Protection Office.
Shulkin is the only holdover from the Obama administration in Trump’s Cabinet and he was sworn in one year ago Wednesday. He was previously the undersecretary for health at the VA.
During his tenure, he has directed increased transparency efforts, including a new website revealing wait times for VA care and quality comparisons to the private sector. Shulkin has also upped accountability efforts, swiftly removing hospital directors when problems with care have been revealed including in Manchester, N.H., and Washington.
He also fulfilled some of President Trump’s key campaign promises on veterans’ issues, overseeing the creation of a 24-hour White House hotline for veteran complaints and a new accountability and whistleblower protection office that has drawn praise for its early efforts.
Shulkin ordered the rewriting of decades old policies on hiring and reporting poor medical care providers to authorities after USA TODAY revealed massive lapses in hiring guidelines and in reporting substandard practitioners to state licensing boardsand a national database created to stop them from crossing state lines to escape their pasts and potentially harm other patients.
Shulkin has been working with Congress to pass legislation to expand veterans’ access to private sector care, another Trump campaign pledge, and the measure appears poised to pass the Senate within weeks.
“We’re on the verge of creating greater choice for veterans, we’re working well in Congress in a bipartisan way,” he said Friday.
Trump has said he calls Shulkin the “100-to-nothing man” because he was confirmed by the Senate in a unanimous vote