More Examples of Personal Email Use and Heavy-Handed Outside Influence at the VA

New documents obtained by American Oversight provide further examples of the influence that outside groups and individuals — specifically, three members of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort as well as the Koch-funded Concerned Veterans for America — have exerted on the nation’s veterans policy.

According to extensive reporting by ProPublica and documents obtained by American Oversight, three private associates of the president — Ike Perlmutter, Bruce Moskowitz, and Marc Sherman — have acted with the authority of high-ranking officials without holding any government positions. Documents obtained in response to our Freedom of Information Act litigation include a number of emails between top VA officials and the trio.

In March 2018, VA officials had exchanged logistical emails regarding plans for then-VA Secretary David Shulkin to travel to Mar-a-Lago to meet with the three men, though the meeting was later canceled. As we reported in May, not only was the former VA secretary a frequent communicator with Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman; he also used personal email to contact them, suggesting that the full extent of the trio’s involvement in VA policymaking may not yet have come to light. The documents recently obtained by American Oversight include another occasion in which Shulkin used his Gmail account for official business. But while Shulkin had forwarded work emails to a VA account in some of the previous instances we uncovered, in this case he failed to forward the messages to his official account as required.

Subjects of significant discussion among the trio and VA officials were the creation of a new medical device registry as well as an overhaul of the department’s electronic health records system, which involved the VA’s Electronic Health Record Modernization initiative (EHR). In March 2018, Moskowitz, a Palm Beach doctor, emailed VA officials about a call: “I want to make sure we are all in agreement of how this is structured. Marc [Sherman] and I want to be on every call that the group is on to discuss the contract.”

A week after that email, VA official Scott Blackburn thanked Moskowitz and Sherman “for introducing us to all the experts we talked to last night,” and inviting them to participate in a call the next day. A couple of days later, Sherman, a lawyer, sent a message to Blackburn, copying Moskowitz and Shulkin, providing his thoughts about recent calls. “I am sorry to be so harsh in my opinions,” he wrote.

The influence of the Mar-a-Lago members seems to have risen to a level where they were even considered for official or quasi-official status within the administration. “I will tell them that Bruce [Moskowitz] is an advisor and extension of the WH/VA team,” wrote Blackburn to Shulkin in late 2017 before a call with CIOs. And in April 2018, Blackburn emailed VA official Camilo Sandoval to ask whether Sherman would consider being a “Special Government Employee.”

After Shulkin was fired in late March 2018, Politico reported that “Moskowitz’s involvement was one of the irritants in Shulkin’s dealings with other White House-appointed officials.” Politico’s report, published in April 2018, was criticized in an email from Sandoval as being “based on inaccurate reporting … fueled by David Shulkin and Scott Blackburn.” Attached to the email were Perlmutter’s, Moskowitz’s and Sherman’s non-disclosure agreements. 

According to the Washington Post, Shulkin’s firing also “underscore[d] the growing clout” that the organization Concerned Veterans for America, which pushes for privatization of veterans health care, was “wielding in the Trump era.” Previously uncovered records revealed numerous emails and meetings between CVA representatives and top VA officials, some of whom had previously worked for CVA. (One such official, senior adviser Darin Selnick, was the subject of a ProPublica story in February about his three-month, $13,000 tab, paid for by the VA, for his twice-a-month commute from California to Washington, D.C.)

American Oversight previously reported on CVA’s close involvement in VA policymaking, as evidenced in questionable redactions (which the department eventually lifted) and even in the organization’s representatives landing the best seats at official meetings. The new documents include the seating chart of an Aug. 21, 2018, breakfast for veterans service organizations (VSOs) — once again, the CVA representative was seated across the table from VA Secretary Robert Wilkie.

In many of the CVA-related documents American Oversight obtained, the VA had redacted content using an exemption that is reserved for deliberations among agency employees or internal consultants. The department eventually lifted these redactions, but the initial use of the exemption shows the extent to which CVA has been on an inside track within the administration.

The new documents provide further examples of this, with the VA having now lifted more improper redactions. This time it’s over emails from the Mar-a-Lago trio, making it clear that the agency continues to rely on outside entities when it comes to making its “internal deliberations.”

It is essential that VA policy decisions are driven by the best interests of veterans — not lobbyists or special interests. We will continue to investigate the role that outside groups and Trump associates have in shaping our nation’s veterans policy.

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