Democrat lawmakers accuse VA secretary of 'misuse of taxpayer funds' to help re-elect Trump

Abbie Bennett
October 13, 2020 - 12:27 pm
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Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Democrat leaders of the House and Senate Veterans Affairs committees in Congress are accusing VA Secretary Robert Wilkie of misusing his office and taxpayer money to help re-elect President Donald Trump. 

sent to Wilkie Tuesday, House VA Committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-California, and Senate VA Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Montana, accused the VA secretary of "potential misuse of taxpayer funds and other government assets, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, in an effort to benefit the reelection of President Trump and certain Republican candidates seeking office in 2020. 

Those accusations included using taxpayer dollars to visit key presidential or U.S. Senate battleground states including Ohio, North Carolina, South Carolina, Michigan, Montana, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Maine, Arizona, Kentucky and Florida. 

VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets Tuesday that "the notion that these visits are somehow improper is absurd," arguing that Wilkie has also visited Illinois, Georgia, Connecticut, Tennessee, Maryland, Colorado, Wyoming and California since August and has traveled "in a non-partisan fashion" to 49 states during his time in office.

Takano and Tester said they reviewed "publicly available information, media reports, social media postings and other data" that suggested that "travel, events and other related official actions of VA senior leaders are steering the department away from its apolitical mission and potentially using department resources in an attempt to tip the scale in favor of the president and other Republican candidates."

Local reporting in several of those states and others include Wilkie's praise of the president, as he has done frequently in his relatively rare public appearances, select media interviews or testimony in Congress. 

"Leaders at VA have historically risen above partisan politics," the lawmakers wrote.

VA accused Takano and Tester of playing politics themselves.

"The lawmakers' partisan letter, which has no Republican support, calls into question who's being partisan in this situation," Noel said. "Secretary Wilkie's official travel is available online for everyone to see and these trips to hear firsthand from our employees in the field is a fundamental responsibility of any VA secretary." 

The Democrat leaders said Wilkie's efforts to "engage in overtly political activity" may also have cost VA directly, arguing that those efforts "come at the expense of legitimate functions of the department's mission -- to provide health care, benefits and memorial service to our nation's veterans, as well as care for their families." 

Lawmakers address the letter not only to Wilkie but to U.S. Special Counsel Henry Kerner and VA Inspector General Michael Missal, requesting an investigation. 

The Hatch Act, federal regulations and Office of Special Counsel (OSC) advice, the lawmakers said, specifically establish rules that prohibit senior government leaders from using taxpayer funds in attempts to influence elections. 

The letter cites three of Wilkie's official trips in recent months, to Maine and North Carolina in August and to Montana in September, where they say the VA secretary participated in campaign-like appearances at events and in videos with Republican candidates. 

In North Carolina, they accused Wilkie of actively campaigning to help Sen. Thom Tillis win reelection, appearing at events, promoting events on VA's website, participating in videos, praising Tillis in speeches and more not only in August but during other visits to Wilkie's home state.

In Maine, Takano and Tester charged Wilkie with appearing at an event with Sen. Susan Collins, promoting Collins on VA media materials and providing media interviews with her. Collins also promoted an event with Wilkie on her campaign social media accounts and VA did the same on Wilkie's official Twitter account. 

In Montana, lawmakers accused Wilkie of several media appearances with Sen. Steve Daines, providing a quote for an official candidate press release, leading media appearances on VA grounds with Daines and publicly praising his work on veterans' issues. 

"There is of course no prohibition on official travel to, or activity in, these states for legitimate departmental work, or in specific circumstances for political purposes if appropriately labeled as such and funded accordingly," Tester and Takano wrote. "But these events — and others by officials within your Department, especially over the last year — require further scrutiny to understand their origins, objectives, and how they were planned, sequenced, prioritized, and financed." 

Takano and Tester also echoed past concerns that in 2020, VA "actively prevented Democratic members of the House and Senate from visiting their local VA facilities to conduct meetings with local VA employees and administrators, while making exceptions for Republican members." 

They accused VA leaders of potentially "politically motivated efforts" to block Democrats in Congress "from conducting oversight and fulfilling legislative duties -- an unacceptable violation of the law." 

In their letter, Takano and Tester request detailed information from Wilkie, including internal emails, documents, financial records and communications with the White House related to whether he and other VA leaders' travel and events in the months leading up to the November election may have violated the Hatch Act, OSC guidelines or VA policies. 

In 2006, former VA Secretary Jim Nicholson, appointed by former President George W. Bush, was found to have violated the Hatch Act for using VA time and resources for political activities, labeling political events as official events and using taxpayer money to fund them. 

"Public information, media reports, and other information indicate that the Department, under your leadership, appears to have returned to these and other troubling practices," Takano and Tester wrote. 

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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