A new secretary was sworn in at the Department of Veterans Affairs in late July, but the people actually in charge of the agency may not have changed, and they are not at the headquarters in Washington, but on the manicured grounds of Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s West Palm Beach estate.
The three men pushed the agency’s health care system toward the use of more privately provided health care, tried to derail a critical contract, blocked moves to fire employees they considered allies, and were instrumental in the firing of the former secretary, Dr. David J. Shulkin, according to the report and the interviews. All of the former officials agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity, citing fear of retribution.
Now, veterans organizations and lawmakers say, the group may be putting the same pressure on the new secretary, Robert L. Wilkie, who was sworn in on July 30.
“We’re concerned the people in Mar-a-Lago are still calling the shots,” said Paul Rieckhoff, head of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Wilkie, he said, “seems like a good guy, but if he isn’t allowed to actually lead, the department could be ripped apart inside by special interests.”
According to reports, Wilkie had planned to quickly name a new leadership team and dismiss several of the political appointees who had clashed with Shulkin. But many of those appointees are allied with the Mar-a-Lago group, former department officials say. So far, Wilkie’ office has announced no staff changes.
The Mar-a-Lago group is led by the reclusive chairman of Marvel Entertainment, Isaac Perlmutter, 75, a longtime friend of Trump’s and a member of his West Palm Beach golf club. Perlmutter, who served briefly in the Israeli army before becoming a U.S. citizen, offered to advise Trump on veterans affairs during the 2016 presidential campaign.
According to the former agency officials, Perlmutter then brought in his personal doctor and fellow club member, Bruce Moskowitz, 70, who specializes in connecting wealthy patients to premium care.
Moskowitz recruited his squash partner, Marc Sherman, 63, a lawyer with the consulting firm Alvarez & Marsal, who specializes in fraud and white-collar crime investigations. None have served in the U.S. military or in government.
The men barraged Shulkin with calls, several times a day, sometimes on nights and weekends, according to department staff members. If they felt Shulkin was not receptive, they called Trump.
The White house did not respond to requests for comment.
Democrats are calling for an investigation. “This situation reeks of corruption and cronyism,” said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., the ranking member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee. On Wednesday he sent a letter to the Department of Veterans Affairs, demanding all correspondence between the department and the three men.
The three men did not respond to requests for comment, but in a statement to ProPublica, they said their advisory role was neither secret nor improper.
The statement added: “We provided our advice and suggestions so that members of the administration could consider them as they wished to make their own decisions on actions to be taken. To the extent anyone thought our role was anything other than that, we don’t believe it was the result of anything we said or did.”
According to the former senior officials, the three men’s first accomplishment was getting their preferred candidate, Shulkin, picked to become secretary. They also gave personal approval for the selection of Tom Bowman as deputy secretary.
In an email to Shulkin obtained by ProPublica, Moskowitz then dictated what access he wanted. “We do not need to meet in person monthly, but meet face to face only when necessary,” he wrote. “We will set up phone conference calls at a convenient time.”
At first, the former officials said, Shulkin and Bowman viewed the three men as allies with connections in the business and health care worlds. But the three men barraged the secretary with criticisms and suggestions, including many that had little basis in fact.
They once called the secretary with complaints about a $200 million contract that did not exist, according to the official who had to hunt for the nonexistent paperwork. Another time, according to documents obtained by ProPublica, they asked the secretary to solve a problem for a friend’s son that was an issue with the military, not Veterans Affairs.
By late 2017, the relationship with Shulkin had begun to sour. The Mar-a-Lago crowd had reservations about a $10 billion contract the department was preparing to sign for an electronic health record system. Moskowitz had used a similar system by the same company, Cerner, and did not like it.
The department assembled panels of experts to address the concerns, but the three men pushed to kill the deal. Eventually, the secretary, frustrated by their constant demands, decided to move ahead on his own.
“That is where his problems started,” one senior staff member said.
Shulkin had also split with political appointees over how to oversee privately provided health care. In December, the Florida advisers and the political appointees formed a plan to change leadership. The details were revealed in a memo left on a copy machine in January: Perlmutter would help get the secretary replaced. They would also replace the deputy secretary and chief of staff.
Shulkin tried to fight back, meeting several times with the White House chief of staff, John F. Kelly, but neither the secretary nor Kelly had authority to fire the appointees, according to one of the former officials.
Shulkin, who was facing criticism over lavish travel spending, was fired in March, shortly before he planned to finalize the Cerner deal.
The morning after Shulkin was fired, one of the Mar-a-Lago members, Sherman, was in the headquarters to greet Wilkie, who became the acting secretary, according to department records.
Both Wilkie and Peter O’Rourke, who also briefly served as acting secretary, visited Mar-a-Lago to meet with the three men, according to two of the former officials.
Several staff members who worked with Wilkie said they believed he was independent and wanted to succeed in running the department, but questioned whether he would be able to do so.
A department spokesman, Curt Cashour, who was one of the men the former secretary was unable to fire, said there had been “no personnel announcements at this time.”
Asked for comment from Wilkie, Cashour did not respond.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.