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Democrats accuse VA head of misusing resources to stump for Trump, vulnerable GOP senators

Democrats accuse VA head of misusing resources to stump for Trump, vulnerable GOP senators
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Democrats are accusing Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert WilkieRobert WilkieBiden's nominee for VA secretary isn't a veteran — does it matter? Biden VA pick faces 'steep learning curve' at massive agency Two headstones with swastikas removed from Texas veterans cemetery MORE and other VA officials of using their office to boost President TrumpDonald TrumpDonald Trump Jr. calls Bruce Springsteen's dropped charges 'liberal privilege' Schiff sees challenges for intel committee, community in Trump's shadow McConnell says he'd back Trump as 2024 GOP nominee MORE and vulnerable Republican senators in their reelection bids.

In a letter to Wilkie on Tuesday, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Mark TakanoMark Allan TakanoK Street navigates virtual inauguration week Hoyer calls on VA Secretary Wilkie to resign after watchdog report Pelosi calls on Wilkie to resign from VA after watchdog report findings MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee ranking member Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats hesitant to raise taxes amid pandemic Jennifer Palmieri: 'Ever since I was aware of politics, I wanted to be in politics' Democrats in standoff over minimum wage MORE (D-Mont.) raised “serious concerns” that official travel and other actions are being taken for political purposes.

“We write today to express our serious concerns that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) may have misused taxpayer funds and other government assets in an effort to benefit the reelection of President Trump and certain Republican candidates seeking office in 2020,” they wrote.

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“To maintain the integrity of the department you lead, we are requesting a full accounting of taxpayer-funded travel, attendance at events, and related activities by you and other department senior leaders that appear to be in violation of the Hatch Act and relevant regulations,” they added.

The lawmakers, who also sent copies of the letter to the VA inspector general and the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, asked for a slew of documents, including records for all of Wilkie and other senior officials’ travel until Election Day, information on any Hatch Act training or guidance, and any communication through unofficial means such as personal cellphones or emails.

In response to the letter, the VA accused the lawmakers of partisanship.

“The lawmakers’ partisan letter, which has no Republican support, calls into question who’s being partisan in this situation,” VA press secretary Christina Noel said in a statement.

“Secretary Wilkie’s official travel is available online for everyone to see, and these trips to hear firsthand from our employees in the field are a fundamental responsibility of any VA secretary,” she added. “The notion that these visits are somehow improper is absurd.”

Democrats have accused several Trump administration officials of using their post for political activity, which is barred by the Hatch Act.

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Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, are investigating whether Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Ahead: One-shot vax, easing restrictions, fiscal help Trump to reemerge on political scene at CPAC China labels human rights criticism 'groundless' MORE illegally campaigned for Trump with official speeches and travel.

Takano and Tester’s letter also cited the Office of Special Counsel recently finding that Agriculture Secretary Sonny PerdueSonny PerdueThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Georgia election day is finally here; Trump hopes Pence 'comes through for us' to overturn results Civil war between MAGA, GOP establishment could hand Dems total control Trump administration races to finish environmental rules, actions MORE recently violated the Hatch Act by encouraging voters to support Trump at an event to promote the Farmers to Families Food Box Program.

“In an era when norms and customs, if not laws and regulations, are regularly flaunted by many in the executive branch, it is imperative for senior officials at the department to follow both the spirit and the letter of the law and to avoid the appearance of partisanship, as well as to uphold the highest ethical standards,” the pair wrote.

“Unfortunately, evidence currently available points to senior leaders at VA using the power, reach, and resources of the department to inappropriately involve themselves in political campaigns to benefit the president and his supporters in Congress, while at the same time shirking VA leadership’s responsibility to be accountable to Congress by meeting constitutional obligations to provide timely information and appear at hearings,” they added.

The lawmakers specifically called out three official trips Wilkie took to battleground states.

In August, Wilkie went to North Carolina for the dedication of a nonprofit veterans’ transition facility with Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisMcConnell backs Garland for attorney general GOP senators demand probe into Cuomo's handling of nursing home deaths CNN anchor confronts GOP chairman over senator's vote to convict Trump MORE (R-N.C.), who is in a tight reelection race. Wilkie also participated in a fireside chat with Tillis, for whom he used to be a senior adviser before joining the Trump administration.

Also in August, Wilkie went to Maine for the groundbreaking of a new national cemetery, appearing alongside Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsHouse passes sweeping protections for LGBTQ people Grassley to vote against Tanden nomination Klain on Manchin's objection to Neera Tanden: He 'doesn't answer to us at the White House' MORE (R-Maine), who is also in a tight reelection race.

In September, Wilkie went to Montana for VA meetings and also made appearances on VA grounds with Sen. Steve DainesSteven (Steve) David DainesKennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a 'whack job' The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by The AIDS Institute - Ahead: One-shot vax, easing restrictions, fiscal help Biden's picks face peril in 50-50 Senate MORE (R-Mont.), who is similarly in a competitive reelection campaign.

Takano and Tester acknowledged that the trips “contain substantial veterans-related policy discussions or departmental management matters for which we have no objection,” but added the itineraries appear “to mix those policy matters with overtly political activities” that “must not be paid for with taxpayer funds.”

They also raised concern about travel by him or other VA officials to other battleground states including Ohio, South Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Arizona, Kentucky and Florida, saying those events “require further scrutiny to understand their origins, objectives and how they were planned, sequenced, prioritized and financed.”

In her statement, Noel said Wilkie’s travel schedule since August has included North Carolina, Ohio, Illinois, Georgia, Tennessee, Connecticut, Montana, Maryland, Colorado, Wyoming, California and Florida.

“During his time in office, Secretary Willkie has traveled in a non-partisan fashion to 49 states—including Montana and California at the request of Senator Tester and Chairman Takano, respectively,” she said.

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Takano and Tester also accused the VA of blocking Democratic lawmakers from visiting local VA facilities for oversights, while allowing Republicans to visit.

For example, they said the VA backed out of participating in a virtual town hall organized by Takano’s staff about the Loma Linda, Calif., facility, but on the same day participated in a Republican lawmaker’s event about a facility in Louisiana.

“Inconsistent and politically driven blocking of members of Congress conducting their oversight and legislative responsibilities is not acceptable or allowed under law,” they wrote.

Their request for records also asks how the department decides whether to grant or deny a lawmaker’s request to visit or hold meetings.

“VA has a noble mission. From delivering disability compensation to providing health care to ensuring veterans have an appropriate final resting place, VA’s impact on the everyday lives of veterans and their families cannot be understated,” they wrote. “That is why it is important to know whether senior leaders of the department are spending time and money, in the middle of a pandemic, focused on political activities funded at taxpayer expense.”