PALM BEACH — A federal watchdog agency will review the involvement of members of President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club in influencing decisions at the Department of Veterans Affairs after two Democratic senators requested an investigation.
U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Brian Schatz of Hawaii, both Democrats, asked the U.S. Government Accountability Office in August for the probe. The request followed a report published by ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization, describing three Mar-a-Lago members — Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, physician Bruce Moskowitz, and attorney Marc Sherman — as "shadow rulers of the VA."
The senators asked GAO for "an investigation ... to understand whether unqualified, unaccountable private citizens with no official government role or responsibilities had or continue to have any undue influence over VA decisions."
In a Nov. 19 response, a GAO official characterized the senators' requested investigation as a "review" and added: "GAO accepts your request as work that is within the scope of its authority. At the current time we anticipate that staff with the required skills will be available to initiate an engagement in about five months."
The ProPublica article described the "Mar-a-Lago crowd" as playing an active role in influencing policy and personnel decisions at the VA. At one point, ProPublica reported, former VA Secretary David Shulkin visited Mar-a-Lago on a weekend Trump was not there to hear concerns from Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman about a $10 billion contract to modernize VA records.
Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman issued a joint statement in August defending their roles.
"After the President's election, we saw an opportunity to share our expertise in organizational management and our personal relationships with healthcare experts around the country to assist the VA as it undertook an aggressive reform of its healthcare delivery and systems ... At all times, we offered our help and advice on a voluntary basis, seeking nothing at all in return," they said in a two-page statement to ProPublica.
The liberal group VoteVets filed a lawsuit against the VA in August claiming the Mar-a-Lago members are acting as a federal advisory council and should therefore be compelled to make their meetings and records public.
Sherman, reached Tuesday, declined comment. Perlmutter and Moskowitz could not be reached. The Veterans Administration press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Presidents throughout history have consulted unofficial "kitchen cabinet" advisers, but Trump critics say the current president is different because many of those who have his ear are paying members of his for-profit club.
"Membership in President Trump's private club, alone, is not sufficient to have an informed opinion on the best way to deliver care and benefits to our nation's veterans. And membership in President Trump's private club should not give any individual the right to exert influence on decisions made by the VA that impact the over nine million veterans under its care," Warren and Schatz wrote in their August letter.
The questions about Mar-a-Lago members influencing the VA highlight the need for visitor logs to Trump's private properties to be kept and made public, said Anne Weismann, an attorney for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
"Especially this president because we know he relies so often on a cadre of outsiders for advice, they have an outside influence on decisions that he makes, and yet we have no access to who they even are," said Weismann.
Trump has visited Mar-a-Lago 18 times since taking office and has tapped Mar-a-Lago Club members for ambassadorships. The president wrapped up his first Mar-a-Lago visit of the 2018-19 season on Sunday.
Trump friend and Mar-a-Lago Club member Christopher Ruddy recently told The Palm Beach Post that when the president visits his Palm Beach estate, he gets "feedback from friends and people he meets down here." But, Ruddy added, "The idea that somebody can be a member and then have private conversations with him is preposterous. There's a virtual rope line around him if not a real rope line."
©2018 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.