WASHINGTON—Congress announced last month that it will be opening an investigation into alleged improper influence by three civilian consultants to President Donald Trump on administration of the VA.

The three men—Ike Perlmutter, CEO of Marvel Entertainment; Bruce Moskowitz, MD, an internal medicine specialist; and Marc Sherman, a private attorney—reportedly had a hand in directing policy and personnel decisions, possibly benefiting financially in the process.

The investigation was sparked by a ProPublica story in August 2018 that detailed extensive meetings between the three men and top VA officials at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, FL. There the trio allegedly helped shape or attempted to shape VA policy, including recent hot-button issues such as the extent of the role of private healthcare providers in veterans’ care. The article linked to hundreds of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act that traced the relationship through the last two years.

Those documents—along with others released in the months that followed—suggest that the three men were indeed more than a sounding board and that VA officials treated them as an official branch of the decision-making process, according to the report. Email correspondence indicates that the men were promised project plans and timelines when they requested VA to stand up an emergency committee on mental healthcare delivery.

Other emails included in the article reveal that Moskowitz tried to get VA to use a health application he had developed for Apple and to bring his son on as a specialist consultant. The three men were also part of the circle that reviewed the confidential draft of the $10 billion contract with Cerner for VA’s electronic health record three months before members of Congress were allowed to view the contract, ProPublica noted.

Following release of the article in August, Democrats in Congress vowed to investigate this alleged improper relationship, requesting the unredacted versions of the documents obtained through FOIA. In addition, a veterans’ group, VoteVets, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, arguing that the trio represent a de facto federal advisory committee and should be treated with the proper level of transparency or be blocked from making policy recommendations.

By December, the Democrats’ requests for documents were still unanswered. Former Rep. Tim Walz, then-Ranking Democrat on the House VA Committee and now governor of Minnesota, told VA Secretary Robert Wilkie that even the unredacted versions were potentially damning and warned him that this would be a priority of the 116th Congress.

“The scope of the Mar-a-Lago trio’s influence over VA is far greater than anybody outside the administration previously imagined. We know this not only based on multiple investigative reports, but by the Trump Administration’s own admission in a court of law. VA cannot be allowed to continue operating outside the law and without any accountability to veterans, taxpayers, or Congress,” he said.

President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence at a luncheon at Trump’s home in Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, FL. last April. White House photo by Shealah Craighead

Following Up

Now that Democratic legislators have control of the House, they are following up on Walz’s promise.

“Government officials and private individuals who seek to use the Department for personal enrichment, or who make poor decisions that waste taxpayer dollars or negatively affect the delivery of veterans’ healthcare and benefits must be held to account,” Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), House VA Committee Chairman, said in a letter sent to Wilkie on Feb. 8.

The letter included a long list of documents legislators are requesting from VA, including travel logs, emails, text messages and phone records to or from Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman, as well as the unredacted versions of the original FOIA-obtained documents.

In addition to the House investigation, a separate investigation is being conducted by the Government Accountability Office. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) wrote to the oversight agency in November requesting it look into the issue.

“If true, [these accounts] paint a disturbing picture of corruption and cronyism that is not only antithetical to transparent, accountable, and ethical government, but will make it more difficult for the Secretary to lead the VA in a way that allows him to exercise his independent thought,” Warren and Schatz said in a statement.  

Wilkie has reportedly distanced himself from the Mar-a-Lago group. “Although his predecessor may have done things differently, Wilkie has been clear about how he does business,” a VA spokesperson said in response to the announcement of the investigation.

That predecessor is former VA Secretary David Shulkin, who was fired in March 2018 following the revelation that he had violated ethics rules through the misuse of travel funds. Most of the released documents deal with events that occurred under Shulkin’s tenure, VA officials noted.

Wilkie did meet with the group at least once last April, however, with one of the released documents including an email from Wilkie to the trio saying he had been “honored to meet them.”