U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie doesn’t want any sunlight on his agency’s “shadow rulers.” By blowing off a recent congressional document request, Wilkie is blocking the public from determining whether a secretive trio of outsiders is calling the shots at the VA.
Wilkie was just confirmed by the Senate in late July. His handling of the data request from the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee raises serious questions about his judgment so early in his tenure. After the scandal involving clinic wait times, public faith in the VA is lagging. Yet Wilkie’s stunning refusal last month to turn over the documents undermines trust even further, creating the damning perception that his priority isn’t Veterans but protecting the three outsiders, all of whom belong to President Donald Trump’s glitzy Mar-a-Lago club.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica news organization first reported about the behind-the-scenes decisionmakers in a story published Aug. 7. E-mails and other documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that the three have “leaned on VA officials and steered policies affecting millions of Americans.” They weighed in on high-level staffing changes, meddled with a major software contract and pushed the agency to make a seismic and expensive push — outsourcing care to private providers.
One of the three also wanted the agency to bring in his son to develop an app. Despite this access to agency inner circles, none of three men ever served in the military. Nor is their expertise relevant. The three men are: Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, attorney Marc Sherman and Bruce Moskowitz, a doctor who runs a company catering to wealthy medical patients.
The congressional request for additional documents, filed on Aug. 8 by Rep. Tim Walz, the Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s ranking member, is sensible. The documents obtained by the reporters may have been redacted. The congressional request would also go beyond the correspondence the reporters were able to obtain through the Freedom of Information law. A thorough review is a must, especially when Veterans sense that “an ideological war is being waged within the VA below the radar of the media and of the public,’’ said Paul Rieckhoff, founder and director of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America advocacy group. “Veterans’ healthcare, benefits and general well-being are ending up as collateral damage.”
Yet on Sept. 15, Wilkie tersely declined the House committee’s document request. His reasons do not hold up to scrutiny. He said the documents are the subject of ongoing litigation. Yet that lawsuit was filed after the congressional committee’s data request. And its existence does not exempt the agency from complying with the committee’s request.
Walz, who is also the Minnesota DFL gubernatorial candidate, gave a deadline extension — until Oct. 31 — in a forceful letter this month. It is Wilkie’s best interest to meet that. Failure will sour the VA’s relationship with a key oversight committee and will only accelerate the public trust deficit in him and the agency.
A noncommittal response this week from a VA spokesman about whether Wilkie will release the documents did not inspire confidence. Wilkie made a mistake saying no once. He owes it to his agency and more important, to the 9 million Veterans served by VA medical facilities, to correct course.