Three members of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club continually exercised high-level influence over the Department of Veterans Affairs’ top officials throughout 2017 and 2018. But new evidence uncovered by American Oversight suggests that the full extent of their involvement may not yet have come to light, thanks to high-ranking officials having used personal email accounts to communicate with them.
According to ProPublica and documents American Oversight obtained, 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 formal government positions or being subject to the ethics requirements and accountability that accompany public service. The use of personal email on the part of VA officials further shields communications with the “Mar-a-Lago crowd” from the scrutiny of congressional oversight or public records requests.
Perlmutter, the chairman of Marvel Entertainment; Moskowitz, a Palm Beach doctor; and Sherman, a lawyer, spoke with VA officials daily about personnel decisions and policy, weighing in on issues like expanding the VA’s use of private-sector health care or setting up a medical device registry. Some of their interventions may have served their friends’ or their own personal interests, and VA officials even traveled to meet with them at taxpayer expense.
American Oversight has demanded that the VA take action to recover any emails from personal accounts between department officials and Perlmutter, Moskowitz, and Sherman about government business so that the public and Congress can understand the full extent of the influence the president’s associates have exerted on our nation’s veteran policy.
Emails the VA has produced to American Oversight in the course of Freedom of Information Act litigation show that former Secretary David Shulkin repeatedly received emails about government business from Perlmutter and Moskowitz through his personal Gmail account. This violates VA’s current policy, which prohibits VA officials from using non-official electronic messaging accounts, and Shulkin’s failure to forward messages from his Gmail account to his official account violates the Federal Records Act.
Shulkin seems to have incidentally forwarded some of his emails from the Mar-a-Lago members to a subordinate, directing the VA employee to take action on their concerns. But none of the records that the VA has produced show Shulkin forwarding the personal emails to his official account.
In March 2018, for example, Moskowitz emailed Shulkin’s personal account to opine on the VA’s electronic health records system options. Shulkin forwarded the message to a subordinate, directing him to “begin to address,” but did not forward the messages to his official account or copy his official account.
Shulkin’s incidental forwarding of occasional messages to a subordinate and violations of federal record-keeping law strongly suggest that his personal email account contains official VA communications that have not been transferred to VA custody in any manner. For example, in the message above, Shulkin notes that he will “respond back” to Moskowitz — but the VA has not produced any such response to American Oversight, even though it would be responsive to our FOIA requests. Where is that message?
In addition to the evidence that Shulkin used personal email to communicate with the president’s associates, VA records suggest that other high-ranking officials may also have used non-official accounts to communicate with these individuals about VA business. For instance, in February 2018, Peter O’Rourke, who was then Shulkin’s chief of staff and would later serve as acting secretary, provided Perlmutter, Moskowitz, and Sherman with his personal email address and personal cell phone number while noting that — “as instructed by the Secretary” — he would “not discuss the content” of their communications with certain unnamed individuals.
This record gives ample to reason to believe that O’Rourke may have had subsequent official communications with the president’s friends through non-official accounts. O’Rourke’s statement that he would keep his conversations with these individuals confidential “as instructed by the Secretary” gives further cause for concern that other subordinates of Shulkin may have used non-official accounts to communicate with the Mar-a-Lago crowd at the secretary’s direction to prevent those communications from becoming public.
To allow the public and Congress to understand the extent of improper influence that the president’s associates may have exercised over veteran policy, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie must take action to recover Shulkin and O’Rourke’s personal email communications with the Mar-a-Lago members. Wilkie should also investigate whether other subordinates of Shulkin improperly used personal email accounts in their communications with the Mar-a-Lago associates.
American Oversight has also filed a FOIA request to capture any communication from Shulkin or O’Rourke to subordinates, instructing them to improperly use personal email for agency business. The letter to Wilkie demanding that he take action is below.