One top committee member launches investigation into alleged undue policy-making involvement.
Lawmakers in both chambers of Congress are looking to shine a light on the individuals who, according to a recent report, have played a covert, yet significant, role in policy-making decisions at the Veterans Affairs Department.
Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the top Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie saying he was “deeply concerned” that three men with no official connection to the department were involved in daily decision making. Their involvement first came to light in a ProPublica report that examined internal emails and documents, as well as accounts from former officials, that demonstrated the deeply entrenched roles the three individuals have enjoyed.
Ike Perlmutter, CEO of Marvel Entertainment; Bruce Moskowitz, an internal medicine specialist; and Marc Sherman, an attorney, are the men in question. All of them are members of Mar-a-Lago, a Florida resort owned by President Trump.
Walz noted that the outsiders were allegedly making personnel decisions, pushing for new programs and potentially personally benefiting from the positions for which they advocated. The ranking member said he was opening an investigation into their influence at VA and requested “unredacted copies of any and all documents, records, memoranda, and correspondence to include electronic correspondence via email and text messages” between Perlmutter, Moskowitz, Sherman and current or former VA employees.
Walz also asked for notes from any meeting in which they participated, as well as information, including associated costs, related to any taxpayer-funded trips by VA employees to Mar-a-Lago. A VA spokesman declined to say whether the department would provide Walz with the information he requested, which the congressman asked for by the end of August.
"We appreciate Rep. Walz’s views and will respond to him directly," said Curt Cashour, the spokesman.
A spokesman for VA's inspector general, meanwhile, said the office was aware of the reports and is "monitoring the situation."
The individuals told ProPublica they have “no direct influence” at the department, a denial echoed by spokespeople at VA and the White House.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., who chairs Walz's committee, said she was hopeful Wilkie would lead VA in a new direction.
"Chairman Roe’s efforts to reform VA have not been influenced by anything or anyone mentioned in the story," said Tiffany Haverly, the spokeswoman. "The article reiterates yet another reason why the department needs permanent, strong leadership and the chairman is confident Secretary Wilkie will be just that."
Amanda Maddox, a spokeswoman for Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Roe's counterpart in the Senate, similarly said the Mar-a-Lago group had no influence on his committee's reform efforts. She added, however, that Isakson "is aware of the individuals mentioned in the story and has concerns about the effect that outside individuals may have had on the VA."
Democrats swiftly condemned the Mar-a-Lago group’s arrangement at VA.
“The VA needs a high-level housecleaning to stop improper interference by Trump political insiders and cronies,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. “Immediate reforms are vital to assure that veterans’ interests are put first. The VA must be permanently protected from all improper interference.”
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., who sits on the House VA panel, called on Wilkie to “put an end to the undue influence” of outside individuals at the department.
“It seems that for the Trump administration, having a Mar-a-Lago membership and being one of President Trump's millionaire friends makes you qualified to make decisions and shape policies that affect the VA and our veterans,” Takano said. “This level of outside influence on the VA is inappropriate and completely unacceptable.”
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., said Wilkie should listen to experts in VA’s responsibilities and not individuals with “no experience in the U.S. military or government.”
“As he takes on his new role at the helm of the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Hassan said, “I urge Secretary Wilkie to disregard the input of the ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd,’ stop the practice of spending taxpayer dollars to ‘kiss the ring’ of dues-paying members of the president’s golf club, and work with those who have an actual understanding of what our veterans need to thrive in civilian life.”
The American Legion did not fault VA for consulting individuals outside the department, but said it should rely only on those with demonstrated expertise.
“We are not about to tell President Trump who he can or cannot take advice from, but we hope that he carefully considers the qualifications and motivations of those offering that advice when it comes to the treatment and well-being of America’s veterans,” said Denise Rohan, the Legion’s national commander. She added that her congressionally chartered organization, which counts 2 million veterans among its members, was “uniquely qualified” to offer solutions to improve VA services.