House Democrats, Newly Empowered, Turn Their Investigations on Veterans Affairs

WASHINGTON — The new Democratic leadership of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee said Friday that it would investigate the influence exerted by three members of President Trump’s Florida beach club on the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The move was viewed as an early, and powerful, indication that the committee, which has always been known as among the most bipartisan on Capitol Hill, could adopt a harder edge under the new Congress as empowered Democrats move to scrutinize the administration.

The investigation was announced in a letter to Robert Wilkie, the secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, from Representative Mark Takano, Democrat of California, the new chairman of the committee. Mr. Takano requested documents and “information about alleged improper influence” of the members, Isaac Perlmutter, Bruce Moskowitz and Marc Sherman, “over policy and personnel decisions of the Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Mr. Takano said the three men exerted inappropriate influence over procurement at the sprawling department.

Mr. Perlmutter is the former chief executive of Marvel Entertainment, Mr. Sherman is a lawyer and Dr. Moskowitz is a doctor. The three do not possess special expertise in veterans health care issues, but were reported to be influential over Trump administration policy, including its plans to push the department’s health care system toward private providers. The three are frequently at Mar-a-Lago, Mr. Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Fla.

According to a report last year by the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica, the three pressured Mr. Trump’s first veterans secretary, David J. Shulkin, then peppered him with demands before ultimately working with personnel in the department to oust him. The group also pushed — in most cases, unsuccessfully — for certain vendors to manage health care records, and had a direct line to the president.

“I think most Americans would agree that wealthy private citizens should not be having back-channel influence” on veterans services, Mr. Takano said in an interview Friday. He said that he could use his subpoena power as a “last resort” if the requested documents were not relinquished. “This doesn’t have to be a drama,” he said. “It is a legitimate request.”

The three men released a joint statement in response to the committee action.

“We were asked by the president and, repeatedly, by the former secretary and his senior staff to assist the V.A. in enhancing the level of service it provides to our veterans,” the statement said. “Our primary focus was to introduce the V.A. to experts in various areas where V.A. staff asked for our help. We do not regret trying to do our small part, and even given the unjust and unrelenting criticism we have faced, each of us would step in to help our veterans again.”

A spokesman for the new veterans secretary said he rebuffed outside pressure of the kind ascribed to the three men.

“Although his predecessors may have done things differently, Secretary Wilkie has been clear about how he does business,” the spokesman, Curt Cashour, said in an email. “No one from outside the administration dictates V.A. policies or decisions — that’s up to Secretary Wilkie and President Trump. Period.”

People who speak regularly with Mr. Wilkie say he has moved to keep the three men at arm’s length since taking over the department, but it is unclear what influence they may continue to have over Mr. Trump. Mr. Takano’s interest appeared to be focused on events predating Mr. Wilkie’s arrival at the department.

This week, though, eight high-ranking Republicans and Democrats wrote a letter to Mr. Wilkie imploring him to “be more open, transparent, complete and candid when engaging with Congress in the critical implementation stages of these programs.”

But Republicans, who lost their majority in the House in midterm elections last year, were hoping that the committee would continue to focus on bipartisan legislation and oversight of the agency on issues they agree need attention, like how it managed the new G.I. Bill and changes to the health care system.

“That’s a waste of time,” Representative Phil Roe of Tennessee, the highest-ranking Republican on the committee, said in an interview last week about the group. “If they go big on that, it won’t be good.”

Some Democrats said they were also concerned that the committee might lean too far into their investigative functions for a panel with extensive responsibilities.

“We’ve got to do our oversight,” said Representative Peter Welch, Democrat of Vermont. “But what we have to be careful of is over-reading our victory. I would recommend coming out of the gate with something that’s good for veterans.”

The House on Friday passed a child care bill to help families of veterans.

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