Veterans group sues to block advisers known as ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd’ from influencing VA

Veterans group sues to block advisers known as ‘Mar-a-Lago Crowd’ from influencing VA
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A liberal veterans group filed a lawsuit to block a trio of high profile men called as the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd” from shaping policy at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (VA).

VoteVets filed a lawsuit on Thursday in a federal court in Washington, D.C., alleging that three men  — Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter, West Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz and Washington lawyer Marc Sherman — are influencing VA policy without any official role or expertise.

The trio reportedly spoke with VA officials daily and even inquired about new potential programs, ProPublica reported last week.

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VA officials would then travel to President TrumpDonald John TrumpAustralia recognizes West Jerusalem as Israeli capital, won't move embassy Mulvaney will stay on as White House budget chief Trump touts ruling against ObamaCare: ‘Mitch and Nancy’ should pass new health-care law MORE's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Springs, Fla., at the taxpayers' expense to meet with them, the outlet reported after obtaining hundreds of documents through the Freedom of Information Act.

None of the meetings were recorded per the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA), according to the lawsuit.

The transparency law from the Watergate-era requires federal agencies to note when it consults with outside experts.

None of the men have ever served in the U.S. military or government, the outlet noted.

VoteVets filed to have the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd” stop influencing the VA, disclose records of its meetings, open up future meetings to the public and keep detailed minutes.

“This group has been operating in the dark, Will Fischer, VoteVets’ director of government relations, told the outlet. “Our goal in bringing this lawsuit is to bring these activities to light and make sure our members, veterans and military families are able to see what’s going on with our VA and the people directing the activities of our VA.”

The Justice Department did not immediately respond to The Hill's request for comment. 

In a statement to The Hill, a spokesman for the VA said the individuals 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.

Wilkie's confirmation marked the VA's first Senate-confirmed secretary since Trump fired David Shulkin in March following months of controversy over allegations of abusing taxpayer funds. 

A spokeswoman for Perlmutter, Sherman and Moskowitz described the group to ProPublica as “volunteers” who make “recommendations” in response to VA requests.

None of the recommendations were made in secret and the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd” did not develop policy or influence personnel decisions, the statement read.

“We have watched with concern as media outlets — including ProPublica — have misrepresented our actions and used selective emails to paint a distorted picture of our efforts to help the VA and America’s veterans,” the men said in the statement.

ProPublica reported that the men weighed in on topics ranging from electric health records to medical services and private providers.

The news organization cited an instance where former VA Secretary David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinEmails show top VA diversity official was told not to condemn Charlottesville violence  Mar-a-Lago trio reviewed confidential billion VA contract before its release: report Veterans have been deprived of their earned benefits for two decades MORE clashed with Moskowitz over an overhaul of the agency’s records system.

Politico previously reported that Moskowitz later joined conference calls on the subject with White House approval.

“Their statement to ProPublica confirms they saw themselves as operating as a group to provide advice and recommendations to the VA,” said Adam Grogg, the lead lawyer on the case. “The publicly available material puts this squarely within the kinds of cases where courts have acknowledged this is a de facto federal advisory committee.”

Updated at 6:50 p.m.