Congressional Democrats and veterans' groups seized on the latest allegation of political cronyism at the Department of Veterans Affairs to demand that President Donald Trump stop taking advice on veterans' issues from a trio of wealthy friends and campaign contributors.
The American Legion suggested that Trump should consult with congressionally chartered Veterans Service Organizations on personnel and policy decisions at the VA before relying upon three members of his $200,000-per-year Mar-a-Lago golf club and estate in Florida.
Democratic lawmakers and the Legion noted that the three -- Marvel Entertainment Chairman Isaac "Ike" Perlmutter, lawyer Marc Sherman, and Palm Beach Dr. Bruce Moskowitz -- had no government or military experience, although Perlmutter reportedly served in the Israeli Defense Forces.
"We are not about to tell President Trump who he can or cannot take advice from, but we hope that he carefully considers the qualifications and motivations of those offering that advice when it comes to the treatment and wellbeing of America's veterans," Denise H. Rohan, National Commander of the 2 million-member Legion, said in a statement.
The Democrats and the Legion were reacting to a lengthy, explosive new report by ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization. The report said Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz were secretly influencing VA policy on issues such as private health care and even directing who to hire and fire at the department.
The ProPublica report also said that VA officials were regularly summoned to Mar-a-Lago at taxpayers' expense to take advice from the three men.
Newly confirmed VA Secretary Robert Wilkie, when he served as acting secretary, was among those who were called to Mar-a-Lago, ProPublica said in the report, based on hundreds of documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests.
The three were initially supporters of Dr. David Shulkin, who was ousted by Trump in March. In his stormy departure from VA, Shulkin charged that he was being undermined by Trump advisors and political appointees at the White House and within the VA.
Trump called attention to the publicity-shy Perlmutter during the 2016 presidential campaign when the candidate announced that he was skipping a debate against Republican opponents to hold a fundraiser for veterans. At the event, Trump said that Perlmutter had contributed $1 million.
The ProPublica report's publication Wednesday prompted Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minnesota, ranking member on the House Veterans Affairs Committee, to write Wilkie, charging that "[the] situation reeks of corruption and cronyism."
Walz said his staff had begun an investigation, and demanded that Wilkie turn over all correspondence between the VA and the three Mar-a-Lago friends of Trump.
In a statement, Walz said that if "the VA is being secretly run from the shadows of Mar-a-Lago by individuals with no accountability to taxpayers and who have never served in the United States military or government, then that would amount to an unprecedented, disturbing, and profoundly unacceptable betrayal of our nation's veterans."
Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire, urged Wilkie to "disregard the input of the 'Mar-a-Lago Crowd,'" and "stop the practice of spending taxpayer dollars to 'kiss the ring' of dues-paying members of the President's golf club."
Paul Rieckhoff, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said in a tweet that the rich friends of top government officials have often sought to influence VA policy.
"Dark money forces have been swarming VA for years now," Rieckhoff tweeted. "Veterans priorities and voices are being squashed and subverted for political (& possibly material) gain."
The VA, the White House and a spokesman for the three men identified by ProPublica all disputed the report and said there was nothing wrong with attempting to provide advice to aid the nation's veterans.
"We appreciate hearing from experts both inside and outside VA as we look for better ways to serve our nation's heroes," a VA spokesman said in a statement. "This broad range of input from individuals both inside and outside VA has helped us immensely over the last year and a half -- a period that hands-down has been VA's most productive in decades."
Through a crisis communications consultant, Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz told ProPublica that they had frequent contact with VA, but said that "at all times, we offered our help and advice on a voluntary basis, seeking nothing at all in return."
"While we were always willing to share our thoughts, 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 three said in a statement.
White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters told ProPublica that the three "have no direct influence over the Department of Veterans Affairs."
Acting on Advice from Palm Beach?
One of the email exchanges ProPublica obtained through Freedom of Information requests was a February exchange between Moskowitz and Peter O'Rourke, who was then the VA's chief of staff.
Moskowitz urged that the VA adopt a new mental health initiative.
"Received," O'Rourke replied, according to the report. "I will begin a project plan and develop a timeline for action."
In July, O'Rourke was serving as acting secretary while waiting for Wilkie to be confirmed by the Senate.
On July 24, the VA put out a release stating that Trump had chosen Thomas "Jake" Leinenkugel, a White House political appointee on veterans issues, to head a new mental health commission at the VA.
The Creating Options for Veterans' Expedited Recovery (COVER) commission would examine VA's current mental health therapy programs and also look at methods used outside the department, department officials said.
In a statement included in the release, O'Rourke said that Leinenkugel, a former beer company executive and Marine captain, "has been an ambassador for change at VA, working to implement President Trump's policies throughout the department over the past year and a half."
"As leader of this important new commission, Jake will continue to advocate for better care and services for his fellow veterans," O'Rourke said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.