'Mar-a-Lago Crowd' with ties to president may have influenced VA decisions, watchdog finds

Abbie Bennett
June 03, 2020 - 12:44 pm
MarALago

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Image

This story originally published at June 3, 2020 at 12:44 p.m. EST. It was updated at 2:11 p.m. 

Three members of a private club with connections to the president may have influenced decisions at the Department of Veterans Affairs, an independent government watchdog reports.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report June 3 detailing an investigation of what, if any, influence Dr. Bruce Moskowitz, Marc Sherman and Isaac Perlmutter, members of the club at President Donald Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla. resort, had at VA. The men are sometimes referred to collectively as the “Mar-a-Lago crowd.” None of the men had experience in the U.S. military or in government.

Perlmutter is a billionaire and Marvel Entertainment chairman. Moskowitz is a physician and Sherman is an attorney.

The GAO, through a review of emails and other records and interviews with current and former VA officials and the men themselves, found that the three men communicated with VA frequently -- as often as every day from late 2016 through mid-2018 -- particularly about:

  • VA's contract for an electronic health records system which was awarded to Cerner. That project totals about $16 billion and has been delayed repeatedly by VA;
  • Mobile app development in partnership with Apple;
  • Suicide prevention campaigns;
  • A medical device registry summit VA eventually held;
  • Personnel decisions, including senior executives such as Undersecretary for Health and Chief Information Officer.

The men emailed, called or visited VA officials and VA officials took trips to Palm Beach, Fla. to meet with the men, according to the report. The emails were initiated by both the men and VA officials themselves, the report said. 

But VA officials were split on whether the men's influence definitively swayed any of the department's decisions. 

"According to former VA officials, while the three private citizens had power and influence in part because of the connection of one of the three private citizens to the president, VA officials ultimately made decisions independently of this influence." GAO's report reads.

One former VA official told investigators the three men "created a 'shadow reporting structure' in which they were stakeholders without a formal role" at VA, the report reads. This created "confusion" for VA staff, "who recognized the power and influence" of the men, "but were not given clear guidance on how to handle that power or make decisions under that influence." 

A current VA official said the men had "no impact" because their input did not require VA to change "planned strategy," adding that he personally was never directed to change anything to meet "the desires or thoughts" of those men.

A former VA official told GAO the men "held some degree of power and influence" because of connections to the president. It was "clear at times that they did not understand the subject matter at hand or how government worked" though they on occasion offered "fantastic" advice, the former official said, according to the report.

"While these three private citizens thought they were more knowledgeable than they were, VA officials recognized
their power and tried to take the advice they offered that was valuable but disregarded the advice that was not helpful," a former senior VA official told investigators.

Former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin "acknowledged that seeking the advice of private citizens is not an unusual practice for government officials" but said this was different because of "the president's expectation that he listen to them and make them happy," the report said. 

But Shulkin said he listened to the men's advice "in the same way he listened to advice from any other private citizens" and "always made decisions ... regardless of what these private citizens advised," according to the report.

Another former VA official told GAO he believed Shulkin made independent decisions but had to "bring along" the three men and "get their buy-in" on certain VA decisions, including the electronic health record contract.

A VA contractor told GAO he was told by VA officials the three men "had an informal role (at VA) as trusted advisors to the White House from whom they had instructions and 'blessings' to be involved in VA" business.

The report also found evidence that:

  • Input from the three men "may have contributed to delays of EHR contract negotiations;
  • Perlmutter arranged Shulkin's appearance at the New York Stock Exchange in 2017;
  • Moskowitz had weekly meetings with VA to plan a medical device registry summit;
  • The three men offered suggestions on candidates for VA positions, including Chief Information Officer and Undersecretary for Health and that VA attempted to hire one of the suggested candidates for the CIO position.

Shulkin wrote in his book, "It Shouldn't Be This Hard to Serve Your Country" that he interviewed with two of the three men before he was nominated as VA Secretary and alleged the president called Perlmutter to agree with his opinion of Shulkin. Shulkin further alleges that Perlmutter coordinated his removal from VA, though Perlmutter denied that accusation. 

The three men denied having influence at VA. In 2018, they issued a statement that read: “Any decisions ... as well as the timing of any ... decisions were independent of our contacts with the VA. We did not make or implement any ... policy, possess any authority over ... decisions, or direct officials to take any actions.

"We volunteered to assist the VA solely because we wanted to help America’s veterans get the best possible care,” the men said.

In a review of more than 1,000 emails, GAO investigators found the three men "acted as organizers by scheduling meetings with VA officials and helping to plan events ... at times, the emails show they acted as advisors by making recommendations."

  • 28 of 223 emails between one of the men and a VA official were recommendations for VA;
  • 70 of the 223 involved information on issues related to contracts, personnel, events, veterans' ability to seek health care outside VA and more. 
  • Emails showed the men introduced other private individuals to VA, including business people and academics;
  • 67 of the 223 emails were VA officials updated the three men, including on personnel changes;
  • In three or fewer cases each, of the 223 emails GAO reviewed, the men asked for action from VA officials, VA officials asked for action from them, or they praised VA decisions. 

The emails led GAO to believe phone calls were frequent between the men and VA, but investigators did not obtain phone logs or other records "because such records were not readily available to VA." 

At least three top VA officials, none of whom are still working at VA, communicated with the men using private email accounts. Records of those emails were not available to the GAO during the investigation, the report said. 

In his book, Shulkin said he communicated with the men frequently, they would call him multiple times per day and "scold him for not communicating with them enough."

The men "interacted with VA and other federal officials frequently -- at times daily, according to former VA officials -- through email and phone or in meetings, some of which involved travel to D.C. or "West Palm Beach, Fla., where one or more of the (men) worked or" lived, according to the report.

GAO did not draw any conclusions about whether the three men's involvement with VA was appropriate or not. GAO's report was completed at the request of Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.

It was unclear Wednesday if there would be any repercussions based on the report. A federal district court previously ruled that the men did not violate the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which governs transparency of outside advisors, holding that the men did were not used as advisors at VA. 

“Three unqualified, unaccountable cronies used their personal relationship with the president and membership at his country club as leverage to exert personal influence over health care, technology, personnel and other key decisions at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Warren said in a statement Wednesday. “The VA must make decisions based only on the best interests of veterans — not on the whims of private individuals with special access to the president.”

VA had no comment on the report after being provided a draft, according to GAO. VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets Wednesday that the report "vindicates the department and completely undermines the sensational way many media outlets covered this story." Noel did not elaborate.

Former VA Secretary David Shulkin did not immediately respond to requests for comment. 

Capitol Hill lawmakers in February announced they planned to expand their investigation into whether the three men wielded "improper influence" at VA, including the fast-tracking of a controversial antidepressant. 

House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., sent letters last week to the men citing previous reports that they “exerted significant influence over VA’s policy, personnel and program decisions, even though none of them hold positions at VA or have any government or U.S. military experience.” 

Read the full report: 

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VA failed to save private emails that could show 'Mar-a-Lago crowd' influence, lawsuit alleges

Congress members expand investigation of alleged 'Mar-a-Lago Crowd' influence at VA

Reach Abbie Bennett: abbie@connectingvets.com or @AbbieRBennett.

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