(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Groups Assert that Existence of Lawsuit Should Not Stand in Way of IG Investigation
Shadow Council has Undue Influence Over VA
Washington, DC — Today, Democracy Forward and VoteVets asked the Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) Inspector General (IG) to reconsider its refusal to investigate the unlawful Mar-a-Lago Council, which the IG has justified in part on account of a lawsuit addressing the Council’s behind-the-scenes influence at the VA. Democracy Forward filed the suit on behalf of VoteVets, and together the groups have asserted that their suit should not prevent the IG from using its legal authority to investigate the Council’s hidden access to VA decision- makers and undue influence over VA policy.
Under federal law, the IG is responsible for conducting, supervising, and coordinating audits and investigations, and keeping the VA Secretary and Congress fully and currently informed concerning fraud and other serious problems, abuses, and deficiencies within the agency.
But, in September 2018, the IG declined requests by multiple U.S. Senators to investigate concerning reports that three individuals connected to President Trump through their membership at the Mar-a-Lago Club—the so-called “Mar-a-Lago Council”—were exercising undue influence over official VA duties and policies.
“The millions of veterans who rely on the VA deserve a transparent government,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “The Inspector General has the authority to investigate matters of public concern, and we’re calling on the OIG to use it here where private interests are pushing public policy behind closed doors.”
“The more we see, the more that stinks with this Mar-a-Lago VA Council,” said Will Fischer, Iraq War veteran and Director of Government Relations, for VoteVets. “Operating with absolutely no oversight, or any Congressionally sanctioned role, this clandestine cabal was providing material guidance that seems to have affected VA decision-making. To merely say veterans deserve better than having our VA managed between the back nine and the back patio of Donald Trump’s country club would be a gross understatement.”
As part of the justification for declining to take action, the VA OIG cited the filing of a private lawsuit. In today’s request, the groups provided examples of IG investigations that proceeded despite the existence of litigation on the same or similar subject matter. For example:
- In 2018, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General issued a report on DHS’ Zero Tolerance and Family Separation policies in the midst of well-publicized litigation challenging the legality of those policies.
- In 2016, the State Department Inspector General released a report on Hillary Clinton’s email usage, despite the existence of pre-existing litigation on the same topic.
- Also in 2016, the Department of Labor Inspector General announced that it would initiate a new review of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s rulemaking and guidance memorandum practices, even though overlapping aspects of those practices had already been challenged in federal court by a pair of trade associations.
Since the VA IG first declined to investigate, even more new facts have come to light about the Council and their influence within the Trump Administration. Records show that they recommended the VA develop a mobile app for veterans adapted from a platform owned and developed by Council-member Bruce Moskowitz. Furthermore, Moskowitz’s son Aaron was brought on board as a manager of the project, and even joined a call with Apple CEO Tim Cook to discuss the app. These facts were fully catalogued in VoteVets’ recently filed amended complaint.
The letter was sent to the IG on December 19, 2018.
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.
VoteVets continues to focus on matters including, but not limited to, foreign policy, energy security, veterans’ unemployment, and opening military service to life-long Americans born to undocumented immigrants, as well as continued investment in care for veterans. More often than not, Veterans have a stake in the top issues of the day, and VoteVets.org is committed to getting their voices heard on these issues. For that reason, VoteVets.org has, and will continue to, work with all progressive allies representing labor, immigration, gay and lesbian rights, and environmentalists, when their issues coincide with the needs of troops and veterans.