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Wilkie won’t share documents that could reveal extent of Mar-a-Lago influence on VA

Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie testifies before the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee on Sept. 26, 2018, during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By NIKKI WENTLING | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 10, 2018

WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has yet to share documentation that some lawmakers suspect could link agency officials to three members of President Donald Trump’s club in Palm Beach, Fla., who were reported to have major influence over veterans policies.

Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, requested the information following a ProPublica investigation in August that revealed a trio of wealthy Mar-a-Lago members with no U.S. military experience were effectively running the VA in secret. The report prompted widespread outcry from Democrats and veterans organizations.

But in a recent letter, Wilkie said he will not hand over information to Congress that could help reveal the extent of the outside influence. Walz accused Wilkie on Tuesday of stonewalling the American public.

“VA’s refusal to cooperate with this inquiry is absolutely unacceptable,” he said in a statement. “The reports of corruption and cronyism are serious and we cannot allow VA to sweep this under the rug.”

Walz requested copies of any correspondence between current and former VA employees and the three men: Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, lawyer Marc Sherman and Bruce Moskowitz, a Palm Beach doctor. He also asked for any records of VA employees traveling to Mar-a-Lago, along with the cost of each trip. He wanted a response by Aug. 31.

In a short letter Sept. 14, Wilkie refused to hand over the documentation, citing ongoing litigation.

VoteVets, a liberal advocacy group, filed a lawsuit in August against Wilkie. VoteVets argues the existence of the secret council broke the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a law that requires transparency of outside advisory groups.

“I want to assure you that VA takes very seriously its responsibilities to comply with the law and its obligation to respond appropriately to congressional requests for information,” Wilkie wrote to Walz. “The matters about which you inquired in your letter are the subject of ongoing litigation alleging violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act and, therefore, not appropriate for release at this time.”

Walz wrote back Tuesday, claiming the VA was hiding behind the lawsuit.

“Your letter reads as a transparent attempt to stonewall not only a member of Congress, but also the American public, on a matter of significant importance to our nation’s veterans,” Walz wrote.

The fight appears to have come to a halt for now. Democrats, the minority party, don’t have the power to subpoena the documents.

For most congressional committees, the power to subpoena lies with the committee chairperson, a member of the majority party. The House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs is one of the last committees that still requires a vote to issue a subpoena. The chairperson would have to initiate the vote, which then couldn’t succeed without support from both parties.

“Congress can ask for anything it wants, and the executive branch can claim any reason for not responding,” said John Whitty, a staff attorney with the Government Accountability Project, a Washington nonprofit specializing in whistleblower protection. “Then, the majority could issue a subpoena for the documents and let the lawyers fight it out.”

As of Wednesday, there were no known plans for Republicans to initiate a vote. The House is on break until mid-November, following the midterm elections. The elections have the potential to shift Democrats to the majority party in the House when a new congressional session begins in January, at which point they would have subpoena power.

Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, has previously said he expects Wilkie to bring strong leadership to the VA. Wilkie was sworn in as secretary in late July, about a week before the ProPublica report.

At a Senate hearing in September, Wilkie insisted neither he nor his staff was taking cues from Perlmutter, Sherman or Moskowitz. He said he’s had “no connection with them” since the spring, when he met with them once while he held the role of acting secretary.

In his letter to Wilkie on Tuesday, Walz put in a renewed request for the documents, asking the VA to submit the documents by 5 p.m. Oct. 31.

wentling.nikki@stripes.com
Twitter: @nikkiwentling

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