Veterans Affairs officials on Friday conceded that a trio of executives with personal ties to President Donald Trump had “unusually pervasive access” to senior VA leaders during his administration, an arrangement that prompted a lawsuit against the department accusing them of violating federal transparency rules.
The department did not admit to any legal wrongdoing, but did note that “even the appearance of these individuals’ access to the VA during the previous administration may have been concerning to the public.”
The move follows findings by congressional investigators earlier this fall and widespread news reports that criticized the three men’s influence over VA policy.
The men involved — Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, primary care specialist Dr. Bruce Moskowitz, and attorney Marc Sherman — were asked by Trump in 2017 to act as unofficial advisors on veterans issues. All three were dues-paying members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
At the time, White House officials insisted that the arrangement was simply an opportunity for the president to hear outside views on the sprawling veterans bureaucracy. But a ProPublica investigation into the group in 2018 found the trio had significant access to and influence over VA officials, without any official public oversight role.
In September, a report from the House Oversight Committee echoed those findings, saying that the men “violated the law and sought to exert improper influence over government officials to further their own personal interests.”
In a letter this week responding to a pending lawsuit from VoteVets and Democracy Forward about the advisory arrangement, department officials stated that the men “had what appears to be unusually pervasive access to certain senior political officials in the department, and these private citizens apparently sought to exert influence with respect to certain government initiatives.”
Even before taking office, members of President Joe Biden’s campaign had criticized Trump’s handling of department operations and policy work. Friday’s concession appears to be another extension of that stance.
With the public acknowledgment from department leadership, officials from VoteVets — which has close ties to Democratic Party officials — agreed to end the ongoing lawsuit.
“The Mar-a-Lago Council was a poster child for the kind of pervasive corruption throughout the Trump administration, and had we not stepped in, the undue influence of Donald Trump’s clubhouse friends could have hurt our veterans in a lot of ways,” said Jon Soltz, and chairman of VoteVets.
“We also have sent the message that no future administration should try this again. Let qualified people, who understand the needs of our veterans, run the VA.”
Congressional investigators found evidence that the three men helped steer policy decisions on VA medical records issues and discussed ways to potentially monetize VA patient health data.
Along with emails to senior VA staff, the trio also frequently contacted senior White House staff on VA policy issues and briefed the president on their proposals, all without any official federal role.
Efforts to reach the three unofficial advisors were not immediately successful.
Democratic lawmakers have said they will look into ways to strengthen rules regarding transparency in executive branch operations, to prevent similar issues in the future.
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.