Emails from senior Veterans Affairs staff released Thursday reveal the frustration and scorn they felt at having to deal with the intrusion of three wealthy members of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in the agency’s plans to create a new digital health platform.
The 2017 and 2018 emails, which Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, show the outsized influence of the Mar-a-Lago members, Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, attorney Marc Sherman and internist Bruce Moskowitz.
The emails reveal how senior staff responded to what they saw as unhelpful meddling in their work. Essentially, they humored the three Trump friends while ignoring their advice, which they considered misinformed and potentially disruptive to veteran health care.
In one email, project head John Windom describes a meeting with the three as a “grin and bear it session.” Another calls them "clearly out of their depth" in demanding changes in the department's 2018 EHR contract with Cerner that the officials felt were unreasonable.
“Mr. Sherman does not understand the culture of VA or the federal government,” Windom said in another email with a colleague. “He appears to be a ‘big bang’ theory guy. The problem is, we must continue to deliver uninterrupted and quality care to our Veterans during the transformation within the parameters of the law and other regulations/policies.”
But a senior VA official involved in the EHR project, former Trump campaign official Camilo Sandoval, kept a list of the requests made by the three Mar-a-Lago members on a posterboard that he checked off from time to time, according to an official who worked directly with him.
The influence of the three Mar-a-Lago members was revealed by POLITICO in 2018, with additional details surfacing in FOIA documents requested by ProPublica. Congress is still investigating the group's interactions with department.
VA Secretary Robert Wilkie said last year that he had not spoken with any of the three since taking office. The VA on Thursday did not respond to an email inquiring into whether they are still involved in agency policymaking.
Two legal advocacy groups on Wednesday sued Wilkie for allegedly failing to preserve emails that they allege his predecessor, David Shulkin, sent from a personal account to conduct business with the Mar-a-Lago figures — activity that the suit claims was illegal.
“Despite misgivings, career VA employees were obligated to waste taxpayer time and resources to respond to the trio of Mar-a-Lago members, purely because of their connections to Trump,” the ethics group CREW said in a news release with the documents.
In one email released by CREW, a top VA official forwarded questions to another staffer that he said came from "a POTUS friend/doctor."
"We need to handle sensitively and with facts," acting Chief Information Officer Scott Blackburn said in the email. Ashwini Zenooz, a senior medical staffer on the project, responded that the requests are “just ridiculous. They don’t make sense and there is a basic lack of understanding… I’m just baffled.”
In another email, a staffer refers to Moskowitz as “the Dr from W Palm that is connected to Trump. ... He is outdated in his understanding of system but we need to be responsive here.”