Bush VA chief: It’s ‘astounding’ that outside advisers are influencing VA from Mar-a-Lago

Bush VA chief: It’s ‘astounding’ that outside advisers are influencing VA from Mar-a-Lago
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A former head of the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is expressing concerns over a report that a trio of allies to President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocratic senator rips Trump's 'let them fight' remarks: 'Enough is enough' Warren warns Facebook may help reelect Trump 'and profit off of it' Trump touts Turkey cease-fire: 'Sometimes you have to let them fight' MORE who do not hold government positions are affecting hiring at the agency.

Anthony Principi, who served as VA secretary under former President George W. Bush, told Stars and Stripes this week that he found the report of alleged influence by members of Trump's private Mar-a-Lago club "astounding."

“If these [Mar-a-Lago] assertions are true, I don’t think that’s good governance. It’s not the way the nomination and appointment process should work," Principi said.

ProbPublica reported earlier this month that three high-profile men — Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter, West Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz and Washington lawyer Marc Sherman — were interacting with VA officials almost daily and meeting with them at Trump’s Palm Beach, Fla., resort.

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A liberal veterans group filed a lawsuit to block the trio, dubbed the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd,” from shaping policy and personnel decisions. 

Principi said he was alarmed because the report of attempted outside influence contrasts with what then President-elect George W. Bush told him before he was nominated to lead the VA in 2001.

“He said, ‘Tony, you select your team. I am holding you accountable. You surround yourself with dedicated, knowledgeable, experienced people who really care about the mission. The only thing I ask of you is to please coordinate with White House Office of Personnel. Let them know what you’re doing,'” Principi recalled.

Principi said he purposefully staffed both Democrats and Republicans.

“That was good governance,” Principi said.

ProPublica reported that Trump has allowed Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman to help screen candidates for senior VA positions and weigh in on topics ranging from electronic record-keeping software to medical services and private providers.

Principi told Star and Stripes that the trio's input hurt VA leadership.

“They have hurt the VA in that there has been a lack of leadership,” Principi said. “There has been so much uncertainty, so much inner turmoil and so much loss of time. And the career force is demoralized.”

In a statement to The Hill earlier this month, a spokesman for the VA responded to the ProPublic report by saying that the three men have "no direct influence over VA" because they are not administration officials, directing questions for comment about the lawsuit to the Justice Department.

"That said, we appreciate hearing from anyone who has good ideas about improving care and benefits for Veterans, and talk to a broad range of people, including academics, doctors, Veterans groups and many others," the spokesman continued.

The spokesman also attributed "almost everything in the story" to VA leadership before secretary Robert Wilkie, who was sworn in late last month.

"Secretary Wilkie has been clear how he does business — no one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions — that’s up to him and President Trump. Period," the spokesman said.

Principi said he’s “hopeful” that Wilkie will do what’s best for the nation’s veterans.

“I am confident that the secretary is going to move forward and identify the right team and the right policies that are needed at the VA,” Principi said.