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Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin recognizes "optics aren't good" on his travel

Veterans Affairs Secretary David Shulkin offered what appeared to be a veiled apology to lawmakers on Capitol Hill Thursday after revelations of an internal watchdog's investigation surrounding the secretary's improper travel expenses for a trip to Europe last year. Shulkin told the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, "I do regret the decisions that have been made that have taken the focus off" the work on veterans' issues, and he addressed the optics of his trip.

He added, "I made the decision to reimburse the Treasury to follow the IG recommendations and I'm committed to doing what we have to do to focus on veterans and make this better."

During the hearing, Shulkin maintained his travel was deemed "essential" saying the conference he was attending was imperative in order to meet with allied forces who "fight alongside us in every war."

"We have had this conference for 43 straight years, attended by every VA Secretary, if the U.S., the largest of those military forces, [does] not go to talk about veterans health issues, if the U.S. does not participate, that ends, that conference ends," said Shulkin.

He said that he had planned to go to the conference for a year and a half but acknowledged "the optics of this are not good."

"I accept responsibility for that but I do believe it's important the U.S. continues its work with its allies," he added.

The investigation found that Shulkin had improperly accepted Wimbledon tennis tickets and likely wrongly used taxpayer money to cover his wife's airfare for an 11-day European trip. The report also questioned Shulkin's decision to direct agency staff on official time to arrange personal sightseeing activities for him and his wife during the July trip to England and Denmark.

The inspector general's audit is the latest in a controversy over misuse of government travel resources by top Trump administration officials.

One GOP lawmaker has called for Shulkin to step down from his post at the VA. Shulkin is now one of five Trump Cabinet members whose travel practices have been scrutinized by agency watchdogs. 

Shulkin's initial statement on the IG's report calling Wednesday's report an attack on his character. But that statement has since been removed from the VA website in favor of a brief comment that states that he would be reviewing the recommendation.

Beyond the brief comments on Thursday, both the secretary and the House panel stuck to the topic at hand regarding the VA's budget request for fiscal year 2019. Shulkin thanked the body for "keeping the focus of today on the important work we have."

CBS News' Emily Tillett contributed to this report.