The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) publicly issued a report on the “Mar-a-Lago Council,” a Trump-connected troika tapped to advise the Department of Veterans Affairs on veterans policy. The GAO’s findings on the Council’s “shadow reporting structure” reinforce our ongoing lawsuit with VoteVets challenging the Trump administration’s unlawful reliance on the Council to shape and influence VA policy — in violation of federal transparency law and in ways that raise concerns about self-dealing.
The Mar-a-Lago Council’s unusual “shadow” influence over the VA prompted the probe by GAO, which found that — by former VA Secretary Shulkin’s own account — one Council member had a “pre-existing and ongoing relationship” with the President and “direct access . . . to the President,” and that Shulkin understood “the President’s expectation” was that he should “make them happy.”
The GAO found that VA officials believed the Council’s direct access to President Trump meant their “buy-in” was needed — even by Secretary Shulkin — before action could be taken on key VA policies, like a multibillion-dollar IT contract.
Our case is currently on appeal, as we seek to reverse a lower court’s conclusion that the Council could not be held accountable under federal law because it had too much control over agency decisionmaking to be considered an advisory committee.
Democracy Forward Counsel Karianne Jones said, “The Mar-a-Lago Council is an early and egregious example of the Trump administration’s pattern of illegally outsourcing public policy to groups of well-connected advisors, instead of experts, that operate outside of public view. Federal law guarantees the public’s right to know who these outside advisors are and what recommendations they are making as they seek to influence public policy. We’re proud to continue our fight to hold the administration accountable for the Mar-a-Lago Council’s shadow operation.”
VoteVets Director of Government Relations Will Goodwin said, “The Mar-a-Lago cabal advised Trump’s VA on a sweeping range of issues — outside all forms of public scrutiny. The group’s recommendations touched on decisions that impact millions of veterans across the country, and we intend to hold the VA accountable. Put simply: our veterans deserve better.”
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.