Undersecretary Poonam Alaigh Caught Up in Veterans Affairs Travel Controversy
Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin and his entourage are criticized for vacationing in Europe at taxpayer expense.
Acting Undersecretary Poonam Alaigh and her husband accompanied Veterans Affairs chief David Shulkin and his wife on a 10-day trip to Europe in July this year, which is being criticized as a taxpayer paid holiday junket.
While on an official visit for meetings with Danish and British officials, Shuklin attended a Wimbledon tennis match. He and his entourage also toured several palaces and the Copenhagen Canal in Denmark, as well as visited the Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral, and took a cruise on the Thames in the United Kingdom.
Besides the Alaighs, Shulkin’s travel team included his chief of staff Vivieca Wright Simpson and James Gough, director of Intergovernmental Affairs, according to the official travel itinerary released by the Department of Veterans Affairs. They were accompanied by a team of six security personnel.
Controversial Europe Trip
Shulkin was visiting Europe for meetings on veterans’ health issues, but he spent more than half the time in sightseeing and shopping, according to the Washington Post, which first reported on the controversy.
The report comes on the heels of the resignation of Tom Price, the Health and Human Services Secretary, who was forced out on Sept. 29 following allegations of taxpayer-funded air travel.
The controversy involving Shulkin is not on the same scale as Price, who is believed to have racked up nearly $1 million in private charters and military travel costs. The VA revealed on Sept. 29 that the federal government paid for the flights for Shulkin and his wife, Merle Bari. The government also provided per-diem reimbursement for their meals and other expenses. Under federal guidelines, Bari could have been eligible for per diem reimbursement of $3,600.
The VA representative did not respond to the Washington Post on how Bari became eligible for reimbursements and taxpayer-funded airfare, saying only that she was traveling on “approved invitational orders.” The spokesperson also refused to reveal the flight fare and the total reimbursement amount.
Alaigh defended the trip, telling the newspaper it contributed to a valuable exchange of ideas with their British and Danish counterparts.
“Were there some breaks we got? Sure. But they were reasonable. They were not at the expense of what we had committed to do: representing our country and showing our commitment to veterans,” Alaigh told the Washington Post.
A travel itinerary released by the Department of Veterans Affairs shows that Alaigh, who is Indian American, and her husband Raman Alaigh accompanied the secretary on a separate flight. Raj Mukherji, a lawyer for Alaigh, told Little India: “The Undersecretary’s tremendous service to our country has required considerable sacrifice on the part of her family. Her residency in Washington during the week kept her away from her husband regularly. Naturally, Mr. Alaigh took what few opportunities he could to spend precious time with his wife, which they did completely at their own expense with no cost to taxpayers. By the way, they both flew in coach for all segments!”
Alaigh resigned several days before the controversy broke, and earlier had withdrawn from consideration for the permanent position. In a Sept 25 email to colleagues, she wrote: “For the last two years, I have been splitting my time, in DC during the week and back home in New Jersey on weekends. While I have been incredibly fulfilled, both professionally and personally, such a schedule has proved to be increasingly demanding on my family. After much thought and deliberation, I have made the difficult decision to step down as Acting Under Secretary of Health effective October 7th 2017.” Carolyn Clancy, the deputy undersecretary of health for organizational excellence, will assume her post.
According to the Military Times, which first reported the resignation, “she had publicly told staff she planned on serving with the agency for only two years,” when she joined the department under the Obama administration in Sept 2015 as senior advisor to then Undersecretary Shulkin. After Shulkin was appointed Secretary in February 2017, she was nominated as Acting Undersecretary for Health by Pres. Trump on May 19.
Alaigh told Little India: “It has been my absolute privilege to dedicate the last two years of my life to the well-being and care of our veterans and the development of a world class integrated delivery system.”
Alaigh is an internist, who completed her residency at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. She earlier served as national medical director for GlaxoSmithKline, cofounder of the Atlantic Accountable Care Organization, and Commissioner of the Department of Health and Senior Services of New Jersey.
VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour defended the trip, saying that Shulkin’s visit, including his trip to the Wimbledon game, was reviewed and approved by the ethics counsel. He added that Alaigh’s husband paid his expenses for the trip.
“These were important trips with our allies to discuss best practices for taking care of veterans. The secretary has been transparent on his down-time activities that were similar to what he would have done with his family over a weekend in the U.S.,” Cashour said.
Shulkin attended a conference in London on July 19 to discuss mental health issues with representatives of Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, following meetings in Denmark from July 12-14.
Travel Scandals in Trump Administration
Several senior members of Congress, including two key Republicans, have expressed concerns over the travel scandals engulfing members of the Trump administration. Beside Price, the travels of Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt are also under scrutiny. House Oversight Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy and Democrat Rep. Elijah E. Cummings recently wrote to the White House to ensure that official travel is not connected to personal use.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, has also written to Trump inquiring about the steps his administration is taking to “ensure Cabinet secretaries use the most fiscally responsible travel in accordance with the public trust they hold.”
The article has been updated to include comments from Acting Undersecretary Poonam Alaigh and her attorney.