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

Abbie Bennett
August 21, 2019 - 11:15 am

(Photo by Oliver Contreras)

The Department of Veterans Affairs failed to preserve private emails that could shed light on what influence the "Mar-a-Lago crowd" may have exerted over the agency and decisions affecting veterans, a new lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges.

Activist groups Democracy Forward and American Oversight filed the complaint in U.S. District Court. Democracy Forward often challenges President Donald Trump and American Oversight is a nonprofit litigation group that works to uncover wrongdoing by the president or his administration.  

The lawsuit alleges former VA Secretary David Shulkin used a private, non-official email account to communicate with "outside advisors" including the "Mar-a-Lago crowd" or "Mar-a-Lago club," a group of men tied to President Donald Trump's private club in Palm Beach, Fla. The lawsuit says the Mar-a-Lago crowd includes lawyer Marc Sherman, Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter and Palm Beach Dr. Bruce Moskowitz. 

The lawsuit cites nonprofit news organization ProPublica's investigation last year that reported the men allegedly "exercised significant influence over VA policy and operations, even as they held no formal government positions." 

Following that investigation, Democracy Forward and American Oversight sought access to Shulkin's emails through Freedom of Information Act Requests. But so far, Shulkin's successor, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, has so far "failed" to initiate enforcement through the Attorney General to recover Shulkin's private emails, the lawsuit says. 

VA's failure to save or produce the emails violates federal law, the complaint says. The Federal Records Act requires preservation of all agency records. 

“The Trump administration can’t hide how deep the Mar-a-Lago crowd’s influence ran at the top levels of the VA by ignoring the law,” Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy said in a statement provided to Connecting Vets Wednesday. “Business done in the name of the American people is government business, and has to be preserved by the government, even if it’s conducted through private email.” 

The suit alleges the three men have tried to exert influence over VA staff issues, the agency's "multi-billion-dollar, no-bid" electronic health records contract and extension of veterans' opportunities to seek care with private doctors partnered with VA and that Shulkin created the email address "specifically" to "shield" his discussions of VA matters with the men. 

"Members of the Trump administration have routinely used private email and backchannels to conceal their work from scrutiny,” Executive Director of American Oversight Austin Evers said in a statement. “The VA has an obligation to recover Secretary Shulkin’s emails to determine what he tried to keep out of the public eye.”

The complaint lists VA, Wilkie, the National Archives and Records Administration and David Ferriero, U.S. archivist, as defendants in the suit. 

The House Committee on Veterans Affairs already launched its own probe into the alleged influence of the Mar-A-Lago Crowd earlier this year. 

Democracy Forward, with VoteVets, an organization dedicated to getting veterans elected, is also suing the Trump administration for issues related to the Mar-a-Lago crowd. 

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