Government Denies Illegality, Contradicting Mounting Evidence that Shows the Full Extent of the Administration’s Wrongdoing
According to New Report, VA Plans to Funnel Billions of Dollars Into Private Care, a Policy Pushed by the Council
Washington DC— Today, on behalf of VoteVets, Democracy Forward responded to the government’s attempt to dismiss their ongoing lawsuit against the Trump Administration for its unlawful reliance on the secretive Mar-a-Lago Council—three members of President Donald Trump’s private Florida club who have advised the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) in violation of federal law. While a trove of publicly released documents have brought the Council’s sweeping influence into view, the Administration continues to unlawfully hide the full extent of the group’s role in steering the VA toward privatizing critical health services for millions of America’s veterans.
The Federal Advisory Committee Act was designed to regulate the ability of private interests to shape federal policy. Nonetheless, the Mar-a-Lago Council—consisting of Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, Palm Beach concierge doctor Bruce Moskowitz, and financial consultant Marc Sherman—have met more than two dozen times to discuss policies that affect millions of veterans, including the makeup of senior VA leadership, the future of VA health services, and a lucrative contract for modernizing the VA’s electronic health records.
“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.”
Today’s filing also follows new reporting that the VA intends to reallocate billions of dollars from federally-run veterans’ hospitals and instead give them to private companies. Privatizing essential veterans health services was among the policies championed by the Council, including in discussions with senior VA leadership.
“This council is the epitome of the Trump Administration’s approach to governance,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “On issues that affect millions of veterans who have served our country, the Administration has outsourced policymaking to three members of the President’s private social club who don’t have relevant expertise but do have potential conflicts, has let them operate in the dark–unlawfully–and has bent over backward to shield their influence from public scrutiny.”
Notably, in their attempt to dismiss the lawsuit, the Administration argued that the Mar-a-Lago Council is not subject to federal transparency laws because VoteVets alleges that the Council exerts so much influence over federal veterans policy that the Council is not subject to federal transparency laws.
Members of Congress have repeatedly called for more transparency by the VA as to the influence of the Council. Former Representative Tim Walz and House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings demanded records that bear on the Council’s influence and access within the VA, and Senators Tammy Duckworth and Maggie Hassan requested that the VA Office of Inspector General (OIG) open an investigation into the Council. The VA has rejected requests to provide responsive records and the VA OIG declined to investigate, citing ongoing litigation–presumably our lawsuit–as a justification for its inaction. Calls for transparency continue, however. In a joint House-Senate Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on December 19, 2018, now House Committee Chairman Takano raised the issue before Secretary Wilkie, commenting “we also need to know more about the reported outsized influence a group of advisors may have had on your decisions, as VA should not be subject to outside influence or the whims of individuals with interests who cannot be held accountable and who do not have veterans best interest in mind.”
Democracy Forward and VoteVets have also called on the VA OIG to reconsider its refusal to open an investigation. The groups noted that the existing lawsuit seeking to hold the administration accountable for breaking the law should not be used as a reason for the OIG to avoid carrying out its statutory obligation to investigate and report on matters affecting VA programs and operations.
The Mar-a-Lago Council’s malfeasance is the latest in a number of Trump Administration attacks on American veterans. In fall 2018 it was reported that the White House engaged in unlawful partisan screening of veterans law judges, rejecting judges deemed insufficiently loyal to the GOP in their personal politics, despite the Board’s traditional nonpartisanship. In that instance, VoteVets and Democracy Forward demanded the VA OIG investigate the Trump Administration’s politicization of this process, which could exacerbate problems for tens of thousands of injured veterans with longstanding claims.
The groups’ suit was filed in August 2018. The response to the government’s motion to dismiss was filed today.
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.
Founded in 2006, and backed by over 600,000 supporters, the mission of VoteVets.org is to use public issue campaigns and direct outreach to lawmakers to ensure that troops abroad have what they need to complete their missions, and receive the care they deserve when they get home. VoteVets.org also recognizes veterans as a vital part of the fabric of our country and will work to protect veterans’ interests in their day-to-day lives. VoteVets.org is committed to the destruction of terror networks around the world – with force when necessary – to protect America. While non-partisan, the group is the largest progressive organization of veterans in America.