Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie has refused to provide U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, the 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 Donald 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 Minnesota 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 last week, 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 the VA to release all documents showing VA interactions with billionaire Ike Perlmutter, Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz and lawyer Marc Sherman, all 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 alleges the Trump administration empowered Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman to influence the VA in violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a Watergate-era law passed to ensure that advisers 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 advisers, all non-veterans, met none of the transparency requirements of the Federal Advisory Committee Act.
The law, Grogg explained, requires that if an agency is going to use an outside group to provide advice and recommendations, it must file a charter for the committee, disclose the minutes of its meetings and disclose materials provided to the committee. The 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 the 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 in pressing the 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 U.S. 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 said.
Walz doesn’t give the same benefit of the doubt to Wilkie, who was 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,” Walz said. “He made that choice. You lay with dogs, you get fleas.”
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 U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., he will reject improper outside influences on the VA.
“A lot of those [interactions reported by ProPublica] took place before I became the secretary,” Wilkie said. “And I am committed to making sure that I am the sole person responsible” for VA policy.
Asked whether VA officials still consult with the Mar-a-Lago trio, 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 [secretary]. I have had no connection with them since then.”
Pressed by U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, Wilkie said the topic discussed with the trio in Palm Beach was the Cerner Corp. contract to create a electronic health record system for the VA, the same system adopted by the 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.
He 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 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,” Wilkie said. “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’s decision to deny him the documents means “he owns this now,” Walz said.
“We need to find out what their influence has been,” the congressman said. “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.”