WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers are pushing for a full investigation into what role a small group of President Donald Trump’s personal friends may have in influencing Veterans Affairs policy, calling it a possible violation of federal law and public safety.
“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 (VA Secretary Robert Wilkie) to lead the VA in a way that allows him to exercise his independent judgement,” Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, wrote in a letter to the VA inspector general’s office on Friday.
“Membership in President Trump’s private club should not give any individual the right to exert influence on decisions made by the VA that impact the over nine million veterans under its care.”
The “shadow rulers” controversy is yet another scandal for the embattled department, which already this year has seen three different leaders, a Cabinet nominee forced to withdraw over allegations of workplace misconduct, and a public fight with its inspector general over access to whistleblower records.
At issue this time is a report released by ProPublica this week that identifies three businessmen — Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, primary care specialist Dr. Bruce Moskowitz and attorney Marc Sherman — as key architects of a host of veterans policy decisions by Trump’s administration, even though none of the men hold an official government post.
All three are members of Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, and documents released by the news organization show frequent contact between the men and top VA officials, including discussions on policy matters and personal favors.
In a statement, Deputy White House Press Secretary Lindsay Walters said the three men “are not administration officials and have no direct influence over the Department of Veterans Affairs” but added that Trump “welcomes the opinions of all Americans who share his vision of modernizing and reforming the VA to ensure our nation’s heroes receive the care they deserve.”
VA spokesman Curt Cashour echoed those comments, adding that "almost everything in the story was before Secretary Wilkie came to VA. Secretary Wilkie has been clear how he does business – no one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions – that’s up to him and President Trump.”
Both Warren and Schatz have requested the inspector general and Government Accountability Office launch a full investigation into the accusations, with an eye towards whether the behind-the-scenes work may be violating federal ethics laws.
Their move is the latest in a series of outraged responses from Democrats on Capitol Hill to the revelations.
House Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Tim Walz, D-Minn., earlier this week demanded VA turn over thousands of documents related to the men’s interactions with VA officials. On Thursday, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee ranking member Jon Tester, D-Mont., joined with 15 other chamber Democrats to request a full department review by Wilkie.
“You recall the commitment you made in your confirmation hearing to do what is best for veterans, even if it is in disagreement with others in the administration,” their letter to Wilkie stated.
“It is clear now that direction is often coming to VA from voices who are outside the department, who may have financial interests in the contracting decisions being made … and who have not been entrusted to make decisions, through election to office or confirmation by the Senate.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement Thursday the revelation is an insult to America’s veterans.
“The poisonous Trump culture of corruption, cronyism and incompetence is finally coming to light at VA,” she said. “Whether or not the President likes it, the Department of Veterans Affairs is an indispensable and cherished guardian of our veterans’ health care and benefits, not a second branch of Mar-a-Lago.”
Republican lawmakers have largely stayed quiet on this latest VA controversy. A spokeswoman for Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said he is “aware of the individuals mentioned in the story and has concerns about the effect that outside individuals may have had on the VA.”
Similarly, a spokeswoman for House Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Phil Roe, R-Tenn., said the report “reiterates yet another reason why the department needs permanent, strong leadership and the chairman is confident Secretary Wilkie will be just that.”
Neither Trump nor Wilkie, who was sworn in as the 10th VA secretary on July 30, have publicly commented yet on the allegations.
White House officials have repeatedly touted VA as one of their most successful policy efforts over the last 18 months, with numerous high-profile pieces of legislation and executive orders related to veterans health care.
But the administration has also drawn criticism from outside advocates what they see as efforts to push the veterans health bureaucracy towards privatization, and for overly aggressive attacks on rank-and-file VA workers in the guise of broader accountability goals.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.