Three members of a private club with connections to the president may have influenced decisions at the Department of Veterans Affairs, an independent government watchdog reports.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report June 3 detailing an investigation of what, if any, influence Dr. Bruce Moskowitz, Marc Sherman and Isaac Perlmutter, members of the club at President Donald Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla. resort, had at VA. The men are sometimes referred to collectively as the “Mar-a-Lago crowd.” None of the men had experience in the U.S. military or in government.
Perlmutter is a billionaire and Marvel Entertainment chairman. Moskowitz is a physician and Sherman is an attorney.
But VA officials were split on whether the men's influence definitively swayed any of the department's decisions.
"According to former VA officials, while the three private citizens had power and influence in part because of the connection of one of the three private citizens to the president, VA officials ultimately made decisions independently of this influence." GAO's report reads.
One former VA official told investigators the three men "created a 'shadow reporting structure' in which they were stakeholders without a formal role" at VA, the report reads. This created "confusion" for VA staff, "who recognized the power and influence" of the men, "but were not given clear guidance on how to handle that power or make decisions under that influence."
A current VA official said the men had "no impact" because their input did not require VA to change "planned strategy," adding that he personally was never directed to change anything to meet "the desires or thoughts" of those men.
A former VA official told GAO the men "held some degree of power and influence" because of connections to the president. It was "clear at times that they did not understand the subject matter at hand or how government worked" though they on occasion offered "fantastic" advice, the former official said, according to the report.
"While these three private citizens thought they were more knowledgeable than they were, VA officials recognizedtheir power and tried to take the advice they offered that was valuable but disregarded the advice that was not helpful," a former senior VA official told investigators.
Former VA Secretary Dr. David Shulkin "acknowledged that seeking the advice of private citizens is not an unusual practice for government officials" but said this was different because of "the president's expectation that he listen to them and make them happy," the report said.
But Shulkin said he listened to the men's advice "in the same way he listened to advice from any other private citizens" and "always made decisions ... regardless of what these private citizens advised," according to the report.
Another former VA official told GAO he believed Shulkin made independent decisions but had to "bring along" the three men and "get their buy-in" on certain VA decisions, including the electronic health record contract.
A VA contractor told GAO he was told by VA officials the three men "had an informal role (at VA) as trusted advisors to the White House from whom they had instructions and 'blessings' to be involved in VA" business.
The three men denied having influence at VA. In 2018, they issued a statement that read: “Any decisions ... as well as the timing of any ... decisions were independent of our contacts with the VA. We did not make or implement any ... policy, possess any authority over ... decisions, or direct officials to take any actions.
"We volunteered to assist the VA solely because we wanted to help America’s veterans get the best possible care,” the men said.
At least three top VA officials, none of whom are still working at VA, communicated with the men using private email accounts. Records of those emails were not available to the GAO during the investigation, the report said.
In his book, Shulkin said he communicated with the men frequently, they would call him multiple times per day and "scold him for not communicating with them enough."
The men "interacted with VA and other federal officials frequently -- at times daily, according to former VA officials -- through email and phone or in meetings, some of which involved travel to D.C. or "West Palm Beach, Fla., where one or more of the (men) worked or" lived, according to the report.
GAO did not draw any conclusions about whether the three men's involvement with VA was appropriate or not. GAO's report was completed at the request of Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii.
It was unclear Wednesday if there would be any repercussions based on the report. A federal district court previously ruled that the men did not violate the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which governs transparency of outside advisors, holding that the men did were not used as advisors at VA.
“Three unqualified, unaccountable cronies used their personal relationship with the president and membership at his country club as leverage to exert personal influence over health care, technology, personnel and other key decisions at the Department of Veterans Affairs,” Warren said in a statement Wednesday. “The VA must make decisions based only on the best interests of veterans — not on the whims of private individuals with special access to the president.”
VA had no comment on the report after being provided a draft, according to GAO. VA Press Secretary Christina Noel told Connecting Vets Wednesday that the report "vindicates the department and completely undermines the sensational way many media outlets covered this story." Noel did not elaborate.
Former VA Secretary David Shulkin did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Capitol Hill lawmakers in February announced they planned to expand their investigation into whether the three men wielded "improper influence" at VA, including the fast-tracking of a controversial antidepressant.
House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano, D-Calif., and House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairwoman Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., sent letters last week to the men citing previous reports that they “exerted significant influence over VA’s policy, personnel and program decisions, even though none of them hold positions at VA or have any government or U.S. military experience.”
Read the full report: