WASHINGTON—Three months into the new Democrat-led Congress, legislators are continuing to press VA on possible misconduct by high-level VA employees and consultants. That includes expanding the investigation into VA’s relationship with civilian advisers conducting meetings at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort and, as of last month, inquiries into the travel expenses of a top VA adviser and influential voice in the creation of the MISSION Act.
On Feb. 20, House VA Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA) sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie requesting information about travel expenses reimbursed to Darin Selnick, a senior adviser to the Office of the VA Secretary. According to a report published in ProPublica, VA spent approximately $13,000 between October 2018 and Feb. 20, 2019 on flying Selnick to Washington from his California home twice a month.
Selnick has been instrumental in VA’s development of the MISSION Act, which lays out access standards for how veterans enrolled in VA can be reimbursed for non-VA care.
According to Takano, expenses are allowed for VA officials traveling on official business away from their official duty post. That means, if Selnick had a post in California and needed to travel to Washington for VA business, the reimbursements would be proper. If his post is in Washington, D.C., however, the $13,000 spent on his commute might need to be paid back.
“If Mr. Selnick’s assigned duty station is or was Washington, D.C., and the department made improper payments of travel expenses to Mr. Selnick, please provide me a plan to ensure the department recoups these expenses from Mr. Selnick.” Takano requested in his letter to Wilkie. If it’s found that Selnick’s duty station is in California, the question would then become why an advisor to the VA Secretary has not been required to relocate to the nation’s capital.
Takano has requested VA provide the committee with information about Selnick’s duties, his duty station, any documents from VA ethics officials pertaining to Selnick’s travel and details of any other candidates considered to lead the executive steering committee overseeing the MISSION Act.
Selnick served as a senior VHA adviser from January 2017 until March 2018 and was a member of the White House Domestic Policy Council. He later rejoined VA in October 2018. During his first stint at VA, Selnick reportedly butted heads with then-VA Secretary David Shulkin, MD, who was himself fired following a misuse of funds for personal travel. Shulkin later wrote publicly wrote about pro-privatization factions within VA, saying he believed his opposition to the MISSION Act was the primary reason for his ouster.
In January, the House VA Committee opened an investigation into the influence three Trump associates—Ike Perlmutter, Dr. Bruce Moskowitz, Marc Sherman—held on VA policy decisions. As part of the investigation, they requested all documentation of communication between those three men and the VA. Now the committee is expanding that request to include “any documents and communications in the possession, control, or custody of the Department of Veterans Affairs originating from President Trump’s National Golf Club Mar-a-Lago.”
The expansion comes after another ProPublica story featuring Freedom of Information Act-obtained documents tracking influence of Mar-A-Lago patrons and friends of Trump on VA policy. This time, the friend in question is Albert Hazzouri, DDS, a cosmetic dentist.
The document featured in the story was a cover letter that appeared to be handwritten by Hazzouri on Mar-a-Lago stationery. In the letter, Hazzouri advocates for a meeting between VA officials and the American Dental Association with the purpose of creating an oversight committee that would oversee spending on dental care for veterans, Native Americans and underprivileged children. According to the letter, such a committee could “stop the waste and save your administration $250 million a year.”
The letter bears the stamp “The President Has Seen” and includes a note written in marker “Send to David S at VA.” At the time the letter was written, David Shulkin was serving as VA secretary.
“This letter provides evidence that additional private interests associated with Mar-a-Lago may have asserted influence, or attempted to assert influence over the Department,” Takano said to Wilkie in a letter written March 14. “Until now, this investigation was limited in scope on the influence of Mr. Ike Perlmutter, Dr. Bruce Moskowitz, and Mr. Marc Sherman over the Department. However, this most recent letter containing President Trump’s handwritten note directing a former VA Secretary to consider a private individual’s request necessitates an investigation into the influence of other private individuals and entities that sought to influence VA through connections with the President’s Mar-a-Lago Club.”