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 TrumpOvernight Defense & National Security — The Pentagon's deadly mistake Overnight Energy & Environment — Presented by Climate Power — Interior returns BLM HQ to Washington France pulls ambassadors to US, Australia in protest of submarine deal MORE and vulnerable Republican senators in their reelection bids.
In a letter to Wilkie on Tuesday, House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Mark TakanoMark Allan TakanoLegislation assuring automatic VA enrollment is more vital than ever before Yellen tries to tamp down Democrats fury over evictions ban VA's decision on transgender veterans is a step in the right direction MORE (D-Calif.) and Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee ranking member Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterDemocrats say Biden must get more involved in budget fight Senate backers of new voting rights bill push for swift passage The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Polls open in California as Newsom fights for job 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.
“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.
Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, are investigating whether Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoChristie, Pompeo named co-chairs of GOP redistricting group America needs a new strategy for Pacific Island Countries Harris to hold fundraiser for McAuliffe ahead of Virginia governor's race 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 PerdueOVERNIGHT ENERGY: Supreme Court rules that pipeline can seize land from New Jersey | Study: EPA underestimated methane emissions from oil and gas development | Kevin McCarthy sets up task forces on climate, other issues The 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 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 TillisGOP senators unveil bill designating Taliban as terrorist organization Without major changes, more Americans could be victims of online crime How to fix the semiconductor chip shortage (it's more than manufacturing) 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 CollinsWelcome to ground zero of climate chaos A tale of two chambers: Trump's power holds in House, wanes in Senate Bipartisan blip: Infrastructure deal is last of its kind without systemic change 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 DainesWarren, Daines introduce bill honoring 13 killed in Kabul attack Daines to introduce bill awarding Congressional Gold Medal to troops killed in Afghanistan Powell reappointment to Fed chair backed by Yellen: report 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.
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.”