There is little doubt that recent reforms at the Department of Veterans Affairs represent remarkable progress.  Last year saw the appointment of a new head for the agency, David Shulkin, and the passage of legislation giving him the power to start implementing badly-needed changes.  It was a lesson in how persistence can eventually lead to progress, and we recently highlighted it in the Washington Examiner as an overlooked bipartisan success.  Unfortunately, Shulkin is now reminding us of a different lesson: even those who champion reform may misuse government power once they have it.

A new inspector general report documents how Shulkin and his direct subordinates improperly turned a simple business trip in July of last year into a lengthy vacation.  Gifts were inappropriately accepted, government employees were used to plan private excursions, and an e-mail was even faked to justify flying Shulkin’s wife to Europe with him.

The saddest part is this occurred just after Shulkin visited the White House to celebrate the signing of legislation which allowed him to more easily fire VA employees for wrongdoing.  Yet instead of ending VA misconduct, Shulkin was on his way to becoming an example of it as he flew to England to attend a sold-out tennis match at Wimbledon with his wife at no cost to either of them.  She had officially been flown out to watch her husband receive “special recognition” at a dinner, a fiction created by Shulkin’s chief of staff to have $4,000 in airfare covered by taxpayers.  The Wimbledon tickets were from an acquaintance whose employer holds several government contracts.

In the days before the report was issued, Shulkin and his attorney had mounted an aggressive defense of his actions.  That tone changed significantly once the report became public, with Shulkin acknowledging how bad the behavior looked and White House officials saying off the record that Shulkin had been deceptive about the seriousness of the charges.  Yet his willingness to accept responsibility was only partial, as he blamed political appointees for targeting him and suggested that e-mails proving expense fraud by his chief of staff were the result of hacking.

The improbable hacking charge may never amount to much, as the chief of staff retired rather than face punishment.  And while e-mails have shown that Shulkin is indeed being pursued by political appointees in his agency, that does not excuse the fraudulent behavior of his staff.  If anything, the knowledge that rivals are looking to undermine you should be another reason to ensure your office behaves ethically.

The VA is not an easy place to lead, and Shulkin has been a consistent advocate for reform.  But that reform will only stick if he can make sure his own subordinates maintain the standards of behavior that he champions for the VA as a whole.  The agency has long suffered from low morale, as years of unaccountability and understaffing have led to dissatisfied veterans and endless frustration for competent employees.  It will be that much harder to change this environment if the top official is excusing ethical lapses instead of preventing them.

The latest reports indicate that Shulkin will remain in his position despite what happened.  He must now focus on using the powers given him by last year’s reform bill to ensure the VA is a place where this kind of behavior is no longer tolerated.

John McGlothlin is counsel at Cause of Action Institute