WASHINGTON (CN) – Pointing to boasts from members of President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort about their efforts crafting policy, a veterans advocacy group brought a federal complaint Thursday to unearth details.
Represented by attorneys at Democracy Forward Foundation, the political action committee VoteVets Action Fund brought its complaint in Washington under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which compels transparency from the ad hoc bodies established to counsel policymakers.
VoteVets says one such committee has come into force at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s private golf club in Florida, where Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, attorney Marck Sherman and Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz have held at least 20 meetings on the work of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Though the Mar-a-Lago Committee is not included on the list of 28 advisory committees that the VA has on its website, Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz essentially admitted the committee’s existence in a statement last week to ProPublica.
Downplaying their influence on the VA, and insisting that their “assistance” is not secret, the trio said they did no more than share their thoughts with the agency.
“We did not make or implement any type of policy, possess any authority over agency decisions, or direct government officials to take any actions,” the statement says.
VoteVets traces the start of the committee to January 2017 when President Trump said during a news conference after the inauguration that Perlmutter and others would help straighten out the agency.
VoteVets quotes several documents obtained by ProPublica through a Freedom of Information Act request to show they operated as a group.
“I am sure that I speak for the group,” Moskowitz wrote on April 21, 2018, to then-acting VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, “that both you and Peter astounded all of us on how quickly and accurately you assessed the key problems and more importantly the solutions that will be needed to finally move the VA in the right direction.”
Because the Trump administration failed to announce the creation of the committee, or make public details about its activities, VoteVets says there is very little public trace of their activities, including more than 20 meetings – some of which occurred at Mar-a-Lago with high-level agency officials.
“Defendants and the Council failed to publish notices of these meetings in the Federal Register. Nor have Defendants or the Council made available any material that the Council has generated or received in connection with these meetings or with its work more generally,” the complaint says. “Finally, there is no record that Defendants and the Council have kept or published minutes of the Council’s many meetings.”
The lawsuit claims the committee members speak daily with VA officials, and review policy and personnel decisions. That includes weighing in on the ouster of former secretary David Shulkin, an Obama administration holdover whom the president fired by tweet on March 28.
According to the complaint, Shulkin and the council had butted heads over a contract with Cerner Corp. to revamp the agency’s digital records system, which caused him to lose favor with the committee members.
The committee has also advised the VA on ways to prevent veteran suicide, how to evaluate the agency’s surgery programs and privatizing VA health care services, the lawsuit says.
VoteVets says it wants to participate in committee meetings, and review committee documents and meeting minutes so that it can present its views and concerns – most especially about the privatization of agency services – to the committee.
Will Fischer, VoteVets’ director of government relations, said in a statement the well-being of veterans “isn’t a game.”
“It’s not just insulting that veterans were forced to sue the Trump administration to have a voice in its veterans policies, it’s dangerous, because we don’t know what other private interests may be affecting life and death decisions of veterans, under the shroud of darkness,” Fischer said.
“Secretary Wilkie has been clear how he does business – no one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions – that’s up to him and President Trump. Period,” Hutton said in an email.
“That said, we appreciate hearing from anyone who has good ideas about improving care and benefits for veterans, and talk to a broad range of people, including academics, doctors, veterans groups and many others.”
According to Hutton, the agency just established a new office solely focused on partnering with the academic community to explore best practices around the country in health care for possible implementation at the agency.
The Department of Justice did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the lawsuit.