There’s an important reason the U.S. Senate is charged with confirming the president’s choice to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs. This sprawling agency has a sacred duty — caring for the military men and women who have served our nation. The person entrusted to carry this out should have his or her qualifications, vision and conflicts weighed publicly.
While the Senate last month confirmed Robert Wilkie as the new Secretary of the VA, a disturbing ProPublica story suggests that a secretive trio of members from President Donald Trump’s gilded Mar-a-Lago Club are actually calling the shots at the agency. ProPublica is a nonpartisan news organization that has won four Pulitzer Prizes.
None of the three men has served in the U.S. military. None of them has held a government post. None of them has had potential conflicts vetted. Nor is the reason for their interest in the VA clear. In all likelihood, few people outside White House and VA inner circles, much less the 9 million veterans served by VA medical facilities, even knew their names: Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, lawyer Mark Sherman and Bruce Moskowitz, a Palm Beach, Fla., doctor whose “medical concierge” business connects people with medical clinics catering to wealthy patients.
And yet according to e-mails and other documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the three appear to have a powerful say in the agency’s operations at a critical time. As the World War II generation fades, the agency is gearing up to care for younger veterans with new health challenges. There are also questions about having the agency rely more on private medical providers instead of the VA’s 172 medical centers and 1,062 outpatient sites.
Such a change would be a seismic shift for the VA, which has a $180 billion annual budget. If it is to be done, it must be because it would better serve veterans, not because it fits the ideology of three Mar-a-Lago members — or worse, because it would benefit their business interests.
A nugget in the ProPublica story highlights the concern about potential personal financial gains. One of the three wanted the agency to “bring in” his son develop a phone “app” the agency could use to help veterans connect with care. Other decisions meddled with involved a large VA contract with a software company.
Details like this troubled Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) organization, and prompted him to ask this question: What other federal agencies also have behind-the-scenes decisionmakers? “If you can do it at the VA, you can do it at the Pentagon,” Rieckhoff told an editorial writer last week.
U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a Minnesota Democrat and ranking member of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, responded with appropriate outrage to the ProPublica report. “This reeks of corruption and cronyism,” said Walz, a veteran and Minnesota gubernatorial candidate. “VA exists to serve our veterans, their caretakers and survivors, and they deserve far better than this.’’
Walz, who is serving his last House term, has directed congressional staff to investigate. The rest of Minnesota’s congressional delegation must ensure that the scrutiny is thorough and, if warranted, the Mar-a-Lago trio gets a dishonorable discharge.
Said Rieckhoff: “How unprecedented this influence is should shock all Americans.”