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Watchdog report finds former VA secretary violated ethics rules with security use

(CNN) An inspector general report faulted former Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin with violating ethical rules by allowing security agents to drive his wife around, and also found larger long-standing ethical and management flaws in the department's security program.

The report concluded Shulkin "violated ethical regulations by permitting his VA employee driver to use a personal vehicle and personal time to provide transportation services to the Secretary's wife."

The inspector general cleared Shulkin of allegations he had abused his authority by having agents protect him when not on government business, because he relied on advice from department staffers and "no one raised any concern that his use was inappropriate."

But the inspector general found that the security force responsible for protecting the secretary and deputy secretary has for years operated without clear policies, which has created security vulnerabilities. Salary and travel for the 13-member team have cost upward of $2 million in recent years, the report stated.

"The OIG concluded that VA's executive protection services are governed by entrenched informal practices without due regard to principles of executive protection, such as calibrating the security provided in response to a well-conceived threat assessment," the report said.

Pay and other disputes have persisted between the agents and management for years, the inspector general said. Changes to address management's concerns about complacent agents were halted because agents could complain directly to the secretary and his chief of staff.

Among the security vulnerabilities discovered by the inspector general:

  • Agents stored keys to the motorcade vehicles inside the gas caps "rather than returning the keys to a secure location."
  • Agents did not wear their protective vests because they were uncomfortable.
  • The panic button in Shulkin's office was broken for an unspecified period of time. After it failed during an unscheduled test, the battery was replaced, but agents responded only when a manager emailed them that the button had been pressed.

In an official response attached to the report, Jacquelyn Hayes-Byrd, an acting assistant VA secretary, said the department was working on policy reforms. She acknowleged that agents have been able to circumvent their managers "and operate independently without fear of discipline."

VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the current VA secretary, Robert Wilkie, addressed the issues "immediately upon his arrival as secretary."

"Secretary Wilkie takes seriously any ethical breaches or violations of federal statute such as those identified in this report, and has made clear to VA employees that they will not be tolerated on his watch," Cashour said.

Shulkin has not yet commented on the findings. Contacted through his current employer, Sanford Health, he said he would not speak publicly about the report.

Shulkin was ousted from VA last March amid a power struggle and the inspector general's findings of serious ethical issues involving a European trip. Shulkin and another top department official had taken their spouses on the trip, which involved a large amount of sightseeing and free Wimbledon tickets, and his chief of staff misled investigators.