Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2019

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Sun editorial:

Trump’s unqualified cronies are out of place advising on veterans issues

Amid the daily barrage of disturbing news from the White House, an emerging scandal involving oversight of the Department of Veterans Affairs may have gone under the radar for many Americans.

But it’s worthy of front-and-center attention, because it has major implications for our nation’s treasured service veterans and could entail a violation of federal law.

The situation involves a group of advisers who, as reported by ProPublica, have secretly been steering the VA despite having no official role in government. The three — Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter, West Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz and Washington attorney Marc Sherman — also have no government experience, and not one of them has served in the military.

But after an investigation based on interviews with former officials and an examination of hundreds of documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, ProPublica reported Aug. 6 that the trio had been in daily contact with VA administrators and had reviewed a number of policy and personnel decisions. The VA treated the group’s directives as orders, the story said, and officials who fell out of step with the shadowy advisers were removed or sidelined.

All the while, ProPublica said, VA leaders took taxpayer-funded trips to Florida to meet with the trio, whom department insiders dubbed the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd.” “Everyone has to go down and kiss the ring,” one former administration official told ProPublica.

The report is troubling. Although presidents routinely rely on so-called “kitchen cabinets,” the investigation suggested that the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd” has obtained significantly more direct involvement in government operations than typical informal advisers.

If true, the story suggests that the Trump administration has broken the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires federal authorities to notify the public when consulting outside experts.

To their credit, lawmakers in both the House and Senate called for investigations.

“This situation reeks of corruption and cronyism,” read a statement from Rep. Tim Walz, the ranking Democrat of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee. “If these revelations prove true, and 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.”

For its part, the group downplayed its influence, issuing a statement saying the three had volunteered their advice and expected nothing in return. The White House said Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz “have no direct influence over the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

But the story says otherwise. Among its details:

n Amid debate within the administration about whether the VA should rely on private medical care, the group advocated for use of the private sector. Although former director David Shulkin and others cautioned that the approach would likely increase costs and decrease the quality of care, Perlmutter wrote to Shulkin and other administrators that it was a better approach. “We think that some of the VA hospitals are delivering some specialty health care when they shouldn’t and when referrals to private facilities or other VA centers would be a better option,” Perlmutter wrote in an email to Shulkin and other officials. “Our solution is to make use of academic medical centers and medical trade groups, both of whom have offered to send review teams to the VA hospitals to help this effort.” But given that Moskowitz is a private practitioner who helps connect people with concierge medical care, the message raises concerns over conflict of interest.

n Moskowitz facilitated a series of calls between VA officials and Apple senior executives, which prompted a discussion about development of an app that would allow veterans to find nearby medical services. Both the VA and Apple became uncomfortable, however, when Moskowitz recommended bringing in his own son as an adviser.

n VA administrators said the group peppered them with demands, many of which were uninformed. Perlmutter, for instance, sent administrators a message from an associate whose son was having trouble obtaining his military records. He added to the message that “this is an excellent reminder that we are also still very far away from achieving our goals.” But the issue had nothing to do with the VA, as Shulkin had to inform Perlmutter. The Department of Defense oversees the type of records at issue.

n In general, the group “acted like board members pounding a CEO to turn around a struggling company,” the story said, as officials sought their guidance on a number of projects. “Everything needs to be run by them,” one former official said. “They view themselves as making the decisions.”

Given these and other details, Nevada lawmakers should support all efforts to investigate the situation. When it comes to the care of our nation’s veterans, Americans deserve to know who’s calling the shots, and what shots they’re calling.