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February 13, 2019

Did Trump's 'Mar-a-Lago Crowd' have undue influence at VA? This House panel wants to find out.

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    House Veterans' Affairs Committee Chair Mark Takano (D-Calif.) on Friday launched an investigation into the alleged influence of an informal team of advisors to the Trump administration on Veterans Affairs (VA) policies.

    How David Shulkin ran America's largest health care system

    Background: Investigation suggests Trump's 'Mar-a-Lago Crowd' is influencing VA policy

    A ProPublica investigation published last year suggested that an informal team of advisors to the administration has exerted sweeping influence over VA policy and personnel decisions—including the decisions to replace former VA Secretary David Shulkin and other senior officials.

    For its 2018 investigation, ProPublica reviewed documents obtained through the federal Freedom of Information Act and interviewed several former administration officials. The documents detailed the involvement of Ike Perlmutter, a longtime acquaintance of President Trump and chair of Marvel Entertainment; Bruce Moskowitz, a physician practicing in Palm Beach; and Marc Sherman, a lawyer; who were "exerting sweeping influence on the VA from Mar-a-Lago, [Trump's] private club in Palm Beach, Florida," ProPublica reported.

    According to ProPublica, the documents showed the group—which many VA insiders reportedly called "the Mar-a-Lago Crowd"—spoke with VA officials daily about policy, personnel, and new programs. VA officials, including VA secretaries, made official trips to Mar-a-Lago to consult with the group.

    The Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) of 1972 allows for agencies to consult panels of outside advisors, and other presidents have relied on unofficial councils. However, ProPublica reported that the documents suggested the Mar-a-Lago Crowd had operated largely "without any transparency, accountability, or oversight."

    At the time, White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters said Perlmutter, Sherman, and Moskowitz "have no direct influence over" VA. For their part, Perlmutter, Moskowitz, and Sherman in a joint statement acknowledged their involvement in VA, but emphasized that they served on a voluntary basis. They also noted that none of them "gained any financial benefit from this volunteer effort, nor was that ever a consideration for us."

    Takano launches investigation into 'Mar-a-Lago Crowd'

    Takano in a letter sent Friday to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie requested documents related to the Mar-a-Lago Crowd's involvement with VA, including all records of communications between the executives and their companies with current or former senior VA staff.

    According to the Wall Street Journal, congressional aides said the House Veterans' Affairs Committee will look into whether VA officials' communications with the executives violated any federal laws. The aides said the committee might schedule hearings on the matter and could issue subpoenas for individuals to testify at the hearings.


    VA spokesperson Curt Cashour said the department has been "transparent on its communications" with Perlmutter, Moskowitz, and Sherman, and noted that the department has responded to multiple Freedom of Information Act requests regarding such communications. Cashour added that most of VA's communications with the executives occurred while Shulkin was VA secretary. Cashour said, "Although [Wilkie's] predecessors may have done things differently … Wilkie has been clear about how he does business. No one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions—that's up to … Wilkie and … Trump. Period."

    According to the Journal, the White House did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.

    A representative for Perlmutter, Moskowitz, and Sherman said Moskowitz and Sherman do not consider themselves friends of Trump, the Journal reports, and Shulkin declined to comment on the matter (Allen, Politico, 2/8; Kesling, Wall Street Journal, 2/8).

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