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Trump’s ‘Mar-a-Lago three’ broke the law by trying to influence federal employees, House committees find

Three club members played ‘secret role’ in making decisions at Veterans agency, probe finds

John Bowden
Monday 27 September 2021 20:03 BST
Former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort
Former President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort (Getty Images)
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A joint investigation by the House committees on Oversight and Veterans’ Affairs found that three members of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort improperly influenced decisions at the Department of Veterans Affairs, the committee chairs announced on Monday.

Those accused included Ike Perlmutter, CEO emeritus of Marvel Entertainment, who was alleged to have along with the others formed an advisory committee to manage VA policy and frequently interacted with VA employees while improperly shielding their activities from oversight.

In a news release, Oversight Committee chairwoman Rep Carolyn Maloney and Veterans’ Affairs chair Rep Mark Takano alleged that the three men “violated the law and sought to exert improper influence over government officials to further their own personal interests”.

Ike Perlmutter, Marc Sherman, and Dr Bruce Moskowitz played a “secret role” in VA decision-making, including “developing VA initiatives and programs ... [such as] a ‘hugely profitable’ plan to monetise veterans’ medical records”, the committee chairs wrote.

Emails obtained by the committee between Dr Moskowitz and then-VA Secretary David Shulkin revealed that the group was taking active efforts to hide their activities, a move that would prove problematic after the Government Accountability Office found that the group constituted an official federal advisory committee under law and was subject to records and transparency requirements.

“We are still unsure what can be put in emails and what to discuss verbally,” Dr Moskowitz wrote to Mr Shulkin in February of 2017, just weeks after Mr Trump took office and the group was founded.

In another email, Mr Perlmutter asserted incorrectly to a White House aide that the group did not fall under Federal Advisory Committee Act requirements after the aide suggested that he contact the White House counsel to ensure that legal processes were being followed correctly: “The good news is that we have been advised that FACA does not apply because we are not a formal group in any way,” he wrote.

The group’s level of participation in day-to-day work at the agency appeared high, according to the GAO. The three “interacted with VA and other federal officials frequently – at times daily, according to former VA officials – through email and telephone,” wrote the GAO in a report last year.

Two members, Mr Perlmutter and Dr Moskowitz, were also accused by the committee of seeking to “use their roles to promote their personal agendas”, with the examples given including a heavily Marvel-branded suicide prevention campaign that held an event on the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange involving distribution of Marvel merchandise to NYSE employees.

Mar-a-Lago emerged as something of a second White House for Mr Trump during parts of his presidency, as the former president would frequently leave Washington for his Florida property and even met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the West Palm Beach club.

The influence that a makeshift advisory committee made up of club members had over the Department of Veterans Affairs shows just how blurred the lines between Mr Trump’s properties and the West Wing became during his presidency. Emails obtained by the House panels show that the three men had the ear of Mr Trump himself, and were in charge of fixing a range of problems that have afflicted the agency for years.

One idea suggested by the trio and explored by the agency at their direction would have involved the “monetization” of VA data; essentially, the sale of VA patient data to major pharmacy chains such as CVS and Walgreens as well as tech companies including Apple. That sale never occurred, but the former VA secretary awarded a federal consulting contract to the head of Dr Moskowitz’s nonprofit foundation to “explore” the idea, according to the House investigation.

The three were later accused by Mr Shulkin of arranging the circumstances leading to his firing via tweet in 2018, after a scandal erupted over his use of taxpayer-funded travel for personal reasons.

The House investigation’s results published on Monday have no formal consequences, but could be the basis for the launching of an investigation at the Justice Department regarding potential breaches of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a charge that does not come with either criminal or civil penalties.

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