House VA committee launches investigation into Mar-a-Lago trio
By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 8, 2019
WASHINGTON — The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs initiated an investigation Friday into how much influence three wealthy members of President Donald Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Fla., exerted over the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The committee, now led by Democrats, sent a letter Friday to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie demanding documents and correspondence that could reveal the level of involvement at the VA of Mar-a-Lago members Ike Perlmutter, Marc Sherman and Bruce Moskowitz.
Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Entertainment, Sherman, a lawyer, and Moskowitz, a Palm Beach doctor, have no U.S. military or government experience, yet they are reported to have steered VA officials on policies affecting millions of veterans.
“The Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is opening an investigation into this relationship so that Congress, veterans and the American people can better understand the scope and nature of this relationship between the department and these individuals,” the letter states.
Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., the chairman of the veterans affairs committee, wants travel logs to and from Mar-a-Lago, as well as emails, text messages and phone records between the three men and former and current VA officials, among other documents. Takano asked for the information by Feb. 22.
There were attempts last year to extract information from the VA about the relationship between the three men and VA insiders. Former Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., requested travel logs and copies of correspondence involving Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz, but Wilkie refused to hand them over, citing ongoing litigation.
Walz, now the governor of Minnesota, accused Wilkie of trying to “sweep this under the rug.”
In the new Congress, with Democrats controlling the House, they have the power to initiate investigations and issue subpoenas to compel members of Trump’s administration to comply.
As Takano took the helm of the veterans affairs committee in January, he said the Mar-a-Lago members’ involvement was a “legitimate area” for investigation.
“It involves a key policy point, which is the privatization of the VA, and the potential profiteering motives of people who are not appointed nor confirmed by the Senate wielding influence over what happens at the VA, who gets hired at the VA,” Takano said at the time.
Wilkie has denied to Congress that he was taking cues from the Mar-a-Lago members and insisted he had no connection with them following an initial meeting when he served as acting secretary in spring 2018.
In a statement Friday, VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour said Wilkie hadn’t been influenced by the three Mar-a-Lago members.
“Although his predecessors may have done things differently, [Secretary] Wilkie has been clear about how he does business,” Cashour wrote in an email. “No one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions – that’s up to [Secretary] Wilkie and President Trump.”
Some redacted documents pertaining to the Mar-a-Lago members, including some travel logs and emails, have been made available on the VA website.
ProPublica, a nonprofit news agency, reported last year that the Mar-a-Lago members had decision-making authority at the VA and influenced the ousting of former VA Secretary David Shulkin after growing frustrated with his leadership.
The committee aims to look into an instance in February 2017 when Shulkin rang the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange – an event where Perlmutter’s Marvel Entertainment was promoted.
Lawmakers also plan to probe how much power the men could have had over a $10 billion VA contract with Cerner Corp. for a project to overhaul the agency’s electronic health records. Multiple news outlets reported the men were given an advance look at a draft of the contract.
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, brought up the allegation Tuesday during a hearing about the electronic health record project. He asked the VA to submit in writing whether any officials were influenced by the three men.
“This concern that there are three private individuals who meet at a private club who have improper influence over the operation of the VA is a first-order scandal, if it’s true,” Schatz said. “And we want to get to the bottom of that particular question.”
On Thursday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., reached out to Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz directly, requesting information about their influence at the VA. The three men have previously downplayed their roles.
After numerous calls from lawmakers, the Government Accountability Office agreed in November to investigate the matter but noted it wouldn’t have the staff available to initiate its probe until this spring.
In the committee letter sent Friday, Takano concluded: “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’ health care and benefits must be held to account.”
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie attends a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 19, 2018. The House Veterans Affairs Committee sent a letter Friday, February 8, 2019, to Wilkie demanding documents and correspondence that could reveal the level of involvement at the VA of three Mar-a-Lago members. Democrats attempted last year to extract information from the VA about the relationship, but Wilkie declined to hand over information, citing ongoing litigation.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES
Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, questions witnesses during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 5, 2019. Schatz, the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations' subcommittee for Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, said allegations that "three private individuals who meet at a private club ... have improper influence over the operation of the VA is a first-order scandal, if it’s true."
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES