VA Secretary Robert Wilkie has refused to provide Rep. Tim Walz (Minn.), ranking Democrat on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, with copies of emails and other internal communications between Department of Veterans Affairs officials and three members of President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago country club who allegedly influenced VA policies and executive hiring and firing decisions for at least a year.
Wilkie told Walz in a Sept. 14 letter that the documents the congressman seeks are “the subject of ongoing litigation alleging violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act and, therefore, not appropriate for release at this time.”
“It’s stonewalling, plain and simple,” Walz said in an interview Wednesday, adding, “This just reeks of corruption. It’s cronyism.”
Hours later Walz’s office sent a second letter to Wilkie. This one set a new deadline of Oct. 31 for VA to release all documents showing VA interactions with billionaire Ike Perlmutter, Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz and lawyer Marc Sherman, all of them Mar-a-Lago members who teamed to influence personnel decisions and to shape policy at VA after Trump became president.
Walz told Wilkie that his response was “a transparent attempt to stonewall not only a member of Congress but also the American public on a matter of significant importance to our nation’s veterans. Be assured, this issue will remain a top concern of the Committee until all our questions have been answered.”
The lawsuit Wilkie cited was filed Aug. 18 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by VoteVets Action Fund, which has been the highest spending liberal nonprofit organization active in recent federal elections, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The fund is associated with VoteVets.org, a political action committee and non-profit social welfare organization founded in 2006 by Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who hold progressive political views.
VoteVets contends the Trump administration empowered Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman to influence VA in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a Watergate-era law passed to ensure that advisors to federal departments are objective and their advice is accessible to the public.
Alan Grogg, an attorney representing VoteVets, said its complaint relies on a lengthy ProPublica news article and VA documents that the online newsroom obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. It argues the President’s friends constituted an advisory group and yet the advisors, all of them non-veterans, met none of the transparency requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
The law requires, Grogg explained, that if an agency is going to use an outside group to provide advice and recommendations, it has to file a charter for the committee, disclose the minutes of its meetings and disclose materials provided to the committee. VA took no such steps to legitimize the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd,” he said.
Documents ProPublica obtained “show the way these three individuals were empowered to not only provide advice and recommendations but even to influence decision making,” Grogg said. “It’s unfortunately part of a pattern with this administration, leaning on non-government individuals to exercise governmental authority, and it’s a jarring example of that trend.”
The lawsuit seeks a court order to stop the Mar-a-Lago trio from meeting with or advising Wilkie or other VA officials until VA complies with transparency obligations of the 1972 law.
Walz said the mid-term elections next month are the reason Republican colleagues on the committee haven’t joined him yet in pressing VA for documents to reveal how the Mar-a-Lago trio influenced the department.
“I don’t want to criticize them openly yet,” Walz said, adding, “I think it’s a fair hesitation on their part going into an election.”
Regardless of November election results, he added, “this is not going away. This is veterans’ health care. These are unelected officials who I believe, just straight up, have financial interests in this with [computer applications] they are trying to promote, some of their companies that have been intersected. I think the potential for deep cronyism, getting an inside track, for corruption, is there.”
Walz said Rep. Phil Roe (R-Tenn.), the House committee chairman, is “a man of great integrity.” Walz trusts him to “be right with me,” seeking answers about the Mar-a-Lago trio, after the election, assuming he too suspects undue influence.
Republicans on the committee “know, and they care, that this is wrong.”
Walz doesn’t give the same benefit of the doubt to Wilkie, who served as acting VA secretary earlier this year and was introduced to the Mar-a-Lago trio before Trump later nominated him to be VA secretary. He took office in July.
Wilkie’s refusal to release the documents made a bad situation “significantly worse by sending a letter falsely claiming” documents are being withheld “because of a lawsuit filed [eight days] after I requested the information,” Walz said.
“He knew what the situation was there. He made that choice. You lay with dogs, you get fleas,” Walz said.
Democrats on the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee pressed Wilkie at hearing last month on his own interactions with the Mar-a-Lago trio. Wilkie told Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) he will reject improper outside influences on VA.
“A lot of those [interactions reported by ProPublica] took place before I became the secretary. And I am committed to making sure that I am the sole person responsible” for VA policy, Wilkie said.
Asked if any VA officials still consult with the Mar-a-Lago Crowd, Wilkie said, “Not that I know of. I met with them once for an hour when I was in Palm Beach the first week I was acting. I have had no connection with them since then.”
Pressed by Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Wilkie said the topic discussed with the trio in Palm Beach was the Cerner Corp. contract to create a new electronic health record system for VA, the same system adopted by Department of Defense.
“And if I’m going to believe the media stories, that the folks I talked to were against it, then I went against their wishes because I approved it two weeks later,” Wilkie said.
Wilkie also conceded to Hirono that his first contact with a member of the Mar-a-Lago group occurred the day he began his stint as acting VA Secretary days earlier, when Marc Sherman was waiting for him in his office at VA headquarters.
"What was discussed that day," Hirono asked.
“Somebody I had never met before…was standing there and told me for whom he worked. And I listened and I said thank you. I’m always happy to listen to anyone who wants to talk about veterans. I was not familiar with what was going on. Again, that was my first day,” Wilkie said.
Wilkie’s decision to deny him the documents means “he owns this now,” Walz said. “We need to find out what their influence has been. They are unelected officials who are interfering and have no authority whatsoever…other than they bought expensive memberships and they’ve got an inside track to the president.”
|Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families. Tom's freelance articles have appeared in numerous magazines including The New Yorker, Reader's Digest and Washingtonian.|
||His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, is available in hardcover and paperback on Amazon.|