The House Veterans Affairs Committee has started investigating allegations of influence by three friends of President Donald Trump over decisions made at the Department of Veterans Affairs and what role, if any, VA insiders played in instituting their recommendations.
Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-California, said Friday in a release that he started the investigation to "better understand the scope and nature" of the relationship between the VA and Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, Dr. Bruce Moskowitz and Mark Sherman, an attorney, all of whom are members of the Trump National Golf Club Mar-a-Lago.
An investigative report by the non-profit ProPublica news organization last August said the three "leaned on VA officials and steered policies affecting millions of Americans," despite never having served in the military or U.S. government.
Through hundreds of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the media outlet showed that the three exerted outsized influence on decisions and policy at the department, recommending new programs and frequently consulting with government employees.
In their defense, the Mar-a-Lago members said through a spokesman that they acted as volunteer consultants without authority to make department decisions.
"At all times, we offered our help and advice on a voluntary basis, seeking nothing at all in return ... we did not make or implement any type of policy," they said according to a statement made to ProPublica.
Takano, copying the committee's ranking member Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tennessee, sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie informing him of the investigation and requesting unredacted documents, emails, text exchanges, phone records, call logs and any other types of communications involving the three men with regard to the VA.
He gave a deadline of Feb. 22.
The Government Accountability Office in November launched an investigation into the role of the three in VA affairs, including any influence they may have had in a contract decision to modernize the VA's electronic health records system.
Last September, Wilkie denied a similar request for documents by then-Rep. Tim Walz, the former ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, saying that the documents weren't releasable because they were the subject of litigation in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. He alleged the relationships were a violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
In a statement to Military.com, VA spokesman Curt Cashour said the VA has been transparent about its communications with Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman, has responded to multiple FOIA requests and shared the responses with Congress. The responses also can be found online on the VA's FOIA Library.
"Since most of these communications occurred under previous VA leaders, we refer you to them for further comment," Cashour said. "Although his predecessors may have done things differently, Secretary Wilkie has been clear about how he does business. No one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions -- that's up to Secretary Wilkie and President Trump. Period."
Takano said he is concerned that the three used their "wealth and connections to President Trump and his family to make decisions for the department."
"Government officials and private individuals who seek to use the department for personal enrichment, or who make poor decisions that waste taxpayer dollars or negatively affect the delivery of veterans' health care and benefits must held to account," Takano said in the release.
-- Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.