WASHINGTON — The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is launching an investigation into whether President Donald Trump’s country club friends had undue influence over Veterans Affairs Department policies or violated any laws.
In a letter to VA officials Friday, committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., said the department needs to turn over dozens of documents by the end of the month to clarify the role of “these individuals who have not served in the U.S. military nor U.S. government, and are not accountable to veterans and the American people.”
The move comes amid increasing tension between the department and members of Congress, and just days after President Donald Trump chastised congressional Democrats in his State of the Union address over investigations.
“If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation,” he said. “It just doesn't work that way.”
The men at the center of the new VA investigation — Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, primary care specialist Dr. Bruce Moskowitz and attorney Marc Sherman — are members of Trump’s exclusive Mar-a-Lago club and have been dubbed the department’s “shadow rulers” because of their high-level conversations with VA employees over the past two years.
The full extent of that involvement is unclear. VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said in congressional testimony last fall that he had only cursory contact with the men and they have had no significant influence over department policy matters.
But a ProPublica investigation last summer revealed extensive communication between the men and VA officials in the past, including involvement in the adoption of a new 10-year, $16-billion electronic medical records overhaul and the firing of former VA Secretary David Shulkin last spring.
The committee has asked for all communications between the trio and VA employees, to include emails, texts and telephone records.
“Top department officials apparently treated these Mar-a-Lago members as having decision-making authority, and emails demonstrate these powerful men weighed in on candidates to lead the Veterans Health Administration and organized meetings and summits between VA and commercial entities,” Takano’s letter states.
In a statement, department spokesman Curt Cashour said that VA has already responded to multiple requests on the issue, and “since most of these communications occurred under previous VA leaders, we refer you to them for further comment.”
He also added that “although his predecessors may have done things differently, Sec. Wilkie has been clear about how he does business. No one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions. That’s up to Sec. Wilkie and President Trump.”
The move comes a day after Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., set a letter directly to the three men out of frustration over months of unanswered questions from VA officials over their roles.
"Although you reportedly had access to and influence over key agency decisions and decision-makers, you were reportedly not subject to any of the conflicts-of-interest and other ethics rules that apply to government employees," she wrote. "As a result, I am concerned that you may have had the opportunity to profit from your arrangement, including possibly by engaging in trades or other actions to enrich yourselves.”
Takano’s counterpart in the upper chamber, Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., said on Thursday that he has no plans to investigate the three businessmen for now. Whether House Republicans will support the Democratic majority’s information requests remains to be seen.
In October, VA officials refused to produce the documents, citing “ongoing litigation alleging violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act” making them “not appropriate for release at this time.” That was due to an ongoing lawsuit filed by the left-leaning advocacy group VoteVets seeking to block the men from contact with VA leadership on official matters.
Now, House Democrats hold subpoena powers for the records. The committee has used that authority several times in recent years, although with near unanimous bipartisan support each time.
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.