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Trump admin accused of 'corruption and cronyism' on veterans' policies

It sounds like the plot to a bad movie. Three wealthy members of Trump's club have effectively overseen a cabinet agency without any oversight or accountability
This May 19, 2014 photo shows a  a sign in front of the Veterans Affairs building in Washington, DC.
This May 19, 2014 photo shows a a sign in front of the Veterans Affairs building in Washington, DC.

One of the first signs of trouble emerged in April. Politico  reported that the Department of Veterans Affairs was moving forward with a multi-billion-dollar transformation of its digital records system -- before it ran into some behind-the-scenes trouble.

According to the report, Dr. Bruce Moskowitz, a West Palm Beach doctor, raised concerns about the software at the heart of the VA project. He shared those concerns with Ike Perlmutter, the head of Marvel Entertainment, whom Politico described as someone who "advises the president" on issues related to veterans. Before long, Politico reported, with the White House's approval, Moskowitz and Perlmutter were participating in conference calls with "the contracting team responsible for implementing the 10-year project."

Then-VA Secretary David Shulkin reportedly said of Moskowitz. "Who the hell is this person who practices medicine in Florida and has never run a health care system?"

The answer, it turns out, is that he's a member of the "the Mar-a-Lago Crowd." Pro Publica had a stunning report on this the other day.

[Moskowitz] is one-third of an informal council that is exerting sweeping influence on the VA from Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump's private club in Palm Beach, Florida. The troika is led by Ike Perlmutter, the reclusive chairman of Marvel Entertainment, who is a longtime acquaintance of President Trump's. The third member is a lawyer named Marc Sherman. None of them has ever served in the U.S. military or government.Yet from a thousand miles away, they have leaned on VA officials and steered policies affecting millions of Americans. They have remained hidden except to a few VA insiders, who have come to call them "the Mar-a-Lago Crowd."

At times, the report added, the trio have done more than just create headaches for VA officials by ignoring government rules and processes. In some cases, Pro Publica added, "they used their influence in ways that could benefit their private interests."

The report went on to note that the triumvirate "hovered over public servants without any transparency, accountability or oversight." Moskowitz. Perlmutter, and Sherman reviewed policy and personnel decisions, and officials even "travelled to Mar-a-Lago at taxpayer expense to hear their views."

It sounds like the plot to a bad movie. Three wealthy members of a Florida resort have effectively overseen a federal cabinet agency for months, despite having no relevant experience, and despite no oversight or accountability of any kind, basically because they're pals with the president through the club he still owns and profits from.

Congressional Democrats aren't pleased.

Democratic lawmakers said they will investigate how three outsiders have been shaping policy and personnel at the Department of Veterans Affairs. A ProPublica investigation Tuesday revealed the vast influence of the trio, who often meet at President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club.Tim Walz, the ranking Democrat on the House Veterans' Affairs Committee, sent a letter to the agency's new secretary demanding that the VA hand over all records of contacts between agency officials and the three men, who are sometimes referred to as the "Mar-a-Lago Crowd.""This situation reeks of corruption and cronyism," Walz (D-Minn.) said in a statement. "If these revelations prove true, and VA is being secretly run from the shadows of Mar-a-Lago by individuals with no accountability to taxpayers and who have never served in the United States military or government, then that would amount to an unprecedented, disturbing, and profoundly unacceptable betrayal of our nation's veterans."

The concerns about corruption are quite real. The original Pro Publica report noted, for example, "Executives from Marvel and its parent company, Disney, joined Johnson & Johnson as sponsors of the Veterans Day event at the stock exchange. Shulkin rang the closing bell standing near a preening and flexing Captain America, with Spider-Man waving from the trading pit, and Marvel swag was distributed to some of the attendees. 'Generally the VA secretary or defense secretary don't shill for companies,' the leader of a veterans advocacy group said."

Captain America and Spider-Man, of course, are properties of Ike Perlmutter's Marvel Entertainment.

In a separate incident, Perlmutter "facilitated a series of conference calls with senior executives from Apple. VA officials were excited about working with the company, but it wasn't immediately obvious what they had to collaborate on. As it turned out, Moskowitz wanted Apple and the VA to develop an app for veterans to find nearby medical services. Who did he bring in to advise them on the project? His son, Aaron, who had built a similar app."

Under normal circumstances, a Congress that cares about administrative oversight would see a report like this and schedule a hearing -- or perhaps a lengthy series of hearings.

But with Trump in the White House, and congressional Republicans largely indifferent to checks and balances, I won't get my hopes up.