New Filing Seeks Reversal of Lower Court’s Ruling That Mar-a-Lago Advisors Held Too Much Influence Over VA to be Subject to Federal Transparency Law
VoteVets and Democracy Forward Move to Hold Administration Accountable
Washington, D.C. — Democracy Forward, on behalf of VoteVets, appealed a lower federal court’s ruling that the so-called Mar-a-Lago Council — an advisory body comprised of three men connected to President Trump through his Mar-a-Lago Club tapped to advise the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) — exercised too much influence over the agency to be subject to a federal transparency law. Monday’s filing asks the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to reverse that decision. It is the latest in VoteVets’ ongoing lawsuit against the Trump Administration for its unlawful reliance on the Mar-a-Lago Council.
The case centers on the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA) — a Watergate-era transparency law designed to regulate the ability of private interests to shape federal policy. The groups’ appeal pushes back on the lower court’s conclusion that, because the “[Council] exercised influence … over the agency” as opposed to the other way around, FACA cannot apply, and argues that the Council’s activities are precisely the kind of outside influence on federal policymaking that FACA aims to prohibit.
“The Mar-a-Lago cabal advised Trump’s VA on a sweeping range of issues — without departmental oversight and outside all forms of public scrutiny,” said VoteVets Director of Government Relations Will Goodwin. “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.”
“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,” said Democracy Forward Counsel Karianne Jones. “Federal law guarantees the public’s right to know who these outside advisors are and on what topics they are seeking 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.”
The Mar-a-Lago Council was created in early 2017 when the administration tapped three men connected to President Trump through his Mar-a-Lago Club to provide advice and recommendations to the VA on issues of critical importance to America’s veterans. Despite their lack of relevant experience or expertise, Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz, and financial consultant Marc Sherman advised the Department of Veterans Affairs on a host of issues. The trio made recommendations — outside of the public’s view — on everything from privatizing health care services, to the VA’s $10 billion overhaul of its electronic health records system, to agency personnel agency decisions, and more.
On more than two dozen occasions, the Council met in secret to discuss veterans policy and formulate recommendations for the VA. In a stunning testament to the Council’s access to and influence over VA policymakers, both of President Trump’s nominees for VA Secretary — David Shulkin and Robert Wilkie — traveled to Florida to meet the Council in-person at the president’s Mar-a-Lago club.
Congress has also scrutinized the Council’s influence on the VA. In 2018, former representative Tim Walz and the late House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings demanded that the VA release records on the Council, and Senators Tammy Duckworth and Maggie Hassan requested that the VA Inspector General open an investigation into the Council — something the Inspector General declined to do, citing a private lawsuit (likely this case) on the matter.
The groups’ Amended Complaint was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in December 2018. In September 2019, the court issued a ruling dismissing the case. VoteVets’ appealed that decision and its opening appeal brief was filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on May 11, 2020.
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 is committed to getting their voices heard on these issues. For that reason, VoteVets 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.