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Tag: veterans administration

Pelosi And Major Veterans Groups Demand That VA Secretary Wilkie Resign

Reprinted with permission from DailyKos

In 2019, Andrea Goldstein, a reserve Navy intelligence officer was working to investigate and reduce sexual assault and harassment at VA facilities. She was at the VA Medical Center in Washington, D.C. for a hearing, with the text of a proposed bill to address the issue in her purse, when she was assaulted. A man slammed into her, rubbed his body against hers, and told her that she looked like she "could use a good time." Not only did Goldstein reported the incident to a number of people on site, there were also witnesses. But she had to report what had happened to her own doctor before police were called.

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Veterans Affairs Secretary Headlines GOP Fundraiser As Virus Surges

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie headlined a fundraiser for the North Carolina Republican Party last week, taking time away from his job leading the government's second-largest agency at a moment when COVID-19 cases are surging in VA hospitals.

Though legal, campaigning by cabinet secretaries is a departure from historical norms. Nevertheless, it's become standard practice in the administration of President Donald Trump. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has hit the campaign trail for Trump, and several other cabinet members recently visited Iowa. Seema Verma, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, is also campaigning in North Carolina. Trump himself has routinely blurred politics with official functions, most prominently by hosting the Republican convention on the White House lawn, and he's brushed off more than a dozen staff violations of the federal Hatch Act, which limits political activity by government employees.

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Why 73 Veterans Died In Understaffed Soldiers Home

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

On March 10, trustees of the Holyoke Soldiers' Home in Massachusetts heard a glowing review of the facility's operations. For the third year in a row, the home's superintendent reported to the board, the 247-bed nursing home met or provisionally met the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs health care standards.

We “are happy to report a 'three peat,'" Superintendent Bennett Walsh told the board, according to minutes of the meeting.

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How ‘Pirates’ Caused Supply Delays That Led To VA Deaths

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Before embarking on a 36-hour tour through an underground of contractors and middlemen trying to make a buck on the nation's desperate need for masks, entrepreneur Robert Stewart Jr. offered an unusual caveat.

“I'm talking with you against the advice of my attorney," the man in the shiny gray suit, an American Flag button with the word “VETERAN" pinned to his blazer, said as we boarded a private jet Saturday from the executive wing at Dulles International Airport.

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VA Secretary Wilkie Sought To Discredit House Staffer Who Complained Of Sex Assault

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie personally sought damaging information about a congressional aide who said she was sexually assaulted in a VA hospital, according to an anonymous complaint to the House committee the woman works for.

The written complaint was obtained by ProPublica. In addition, a former senior official with direct knowledge of the matter said Wilkie discussed damaging information he collected about the aide and suggested using it to discredit her. Another person said he spoke with other officials who were in those discussions, and they corroborated the former senior official’s and the written complaint’s account. The people interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity, saying they feared retaliation.

Wilkie denied inquiring into the aide’s past. “I never would do that to a fellow officer,” he said in a statement. “It is a breach of honor.”

The aide, Andrea Goldstein, is a Navy reserve intelligence officer and a senior policy adviser for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Women Veterans Task Force. In September, she said she was sexually assaulted at the VA medical center in Washington. According to Goldstein’s account reported in The New York Times, she was buying a snack in the cafeteria when a man slammed his body into hers, pressed against her and told her, “You look like you could use a good time.” Goldstein said she did not know who the man was, but he was not an employee.

As required by VA regulations, Goldstein’s allegation was turned over to the department’s inspector general to conduct an independent criminal investigation, working with federal prosecutors.

But the complaint alleges that while the inspector general and prosecutors investigated Goldstein’s allegation, Wilkie initiated what the complaint described as “his own investigation into Ms. Goldstein’s credibility and military record.”

The House committee said it is considering how to respond to the complaint, spokeswoman Jenni Geurink said. While the committee has oversight jurisdiction over the VA and often fields complaints from employees and patients, it is in an unusual position since this complaint relates to one of its staff members.

“We have been contacted about possible actions taken within VA which may have utilized government time and resources to attempt to tarnish a member of our staff’s character, discredit her and spread false information about her past in retaliation for her reporting of a sexual assault at VA,” Geurink said. “This ordeal has been draining and unfair to Ms. Goldstein.”

According to the complaint and the former senior official, Wilkie repeatedly shared the information he had gathered about Goldstein with his senior staff, including officials responsible for public relations, between October 2019 and January 2020. One of the officials present, Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs James E. Hutton, did not respond to requests for comment.

“Wilkie’s energies are directed toward attacking her character,” the complaint said.

Wilkie did not specify the source of his information but said he wished his findings could be used to undermine Goldstein’s account of the assault in the Washington VA, the complaint and the former senior official said. While Wilkie did not direct anyone to do anything with the information, he wondered aloud about how it might become public, according to the complaint and the former senior official.

Wilkie, through a spokeswoman, denied saying that.

Wilkie also met in his office with Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who is a former Navy commando. After the meeting, Wilkie told his staff that Crenshaw agreed with the allegations that Wilkie made about Goldstein’s credibility, according to the complaint, the former senior official and the other person with knowledge of the meeting.

Wilkie denied discussing Goldstein with Crenshaw. Crenshaw, in a brief interview in the Capitol, confirmed that he met with Wilkie. “I had breakfast with him once,” Crenshaw said. “I know where this rumor’s coming from. So you have a bunch of Democrat staffers who are leading you guys down a really stupid path. I’ve never been asked about the case, never been told about the case.”

Wilkie and his staff have not publicized the information he collected about Goldstein’s past. But after the inspector general concluded its investigation and federal prosecutors declined to bring charges, Wilkie sent a Jan. 15 letter to Congress calling Goldstein’s complaint “unsubstantiated” and saying it “could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.”

Wilkie’s letter prompted an objection from the VA’s inspector general, Michael Missal, who said calling Goldstein’s allegations “unsubstantiated” was “not an accurate description of the results of our investigation.” The Times reported that the criminal probe was hindered because video cameras that might have captured the incident at the hospital weren’t working.

“Neither I nor my staff told you or anyone else that the allegations were unsubstantiated,” Missal wrote to Wilkie. “Reaching a decision to close the investigation with no criminal charges does not mean the underlying allegation is unsubstantiated.”

Goldstein, in an op-ed published Monday on the website Jezebel, criticized Wilkie, saying that his letter to Congress was retaliation for her reporting the assault and that she had also faced retaliation from a military commander when she reported sexual harassment while on active duty. She said she receives treatment at the VA for conditions related to sexual trauma during her military service.

“He used coded language, but the words still stung,” Goldstein wrote. “The Secretary of the second largest federal agency knew how his words would resonate. He was implying that a fellow Navy veteran was a liar. He was implying that I was a liar.”

Asked about the subject at a post-State of the Union press conference on Wednesday, Wilkie said he was “not satisfied with the resolution of the Goldstein case” and wants to reexamine it.

“I met with the [inspector general] yesterday,” he said. “We’re going to make a renewed push to get answers.”

But the inspector general’s office later said the investigation remains closed. “We are not working with anyone to seek additional information at this time,” a spokesman said.

A spokeswoman for Wilkie later clarified that he wasn’t asking to reopen the investigation but wants to receive more details of the inspector general’s findings. “At a minimum, the IG should let VA and committee leaders know if its investigation found any wrongdoing so the department can take action to protect and safeguard our patients,” VA press secretary Christina Mandreucci said. “We need this help to make sure our facilities are safe.”

IMAGE: Official photo portrait of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie.

Congress Pressing Probe Of Mar-A-Lago Influence Peddling

The House Veterans’ Affairs Committee is broadening its investigation into the growing scandalaround wealthy members of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort who have exerted undue influence on American veterans policy, despite having no official government position and no experience with veterans issues.

Until recently, the scandal centered around three Mar-a-Lago members in particular — but a recent report from ProPublica offered evidence that the problem was even more widespread.

That’s why Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), chair of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, sent a letter late last week to the Department of Veterans Affairs demanding to know just how deep the corruption goes.

ProPublica reported that a cosmetic dentist with no known experience in government or the military wrote a note on Mar-a-Lago stationary to Trump (whom the dentist affectionately referred to as “King”), advocating for a new committee to partner with the American Dental Association to oversee federal spending related to veterans, Native Americans, and poor children.

Trump not only read the letter, but also apparently ordered his staff to send the letter to the head of the Veterans Affairs department.

In his letter to the VA, Takano demanded any and all documents the department has that indicate influence from Mar-a-Lago. Takano told the department to turn over “any documents or communications on stationary bearing the name, ‘The Mar-a-Lago Club,” as well as any and all “documents or communications sent or received from members or associates of the Mar-a-Lago Club in the possession of the Department.”

Takano wrote that he is alarmed by the volume of influence peddling by wealthy Mar-a-Lago elites “over policy, personnel, and program decisions of the Department of Veterans Affairs.” Trump often spends long weekends at the club he still owns and where members — who must pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to join the club — have intimate access to him and his advisers.

Prior to this new development, Takano was already investigating the so-called “Mar-a-Lago three,” a triumvirate of members who seemed to exert influence over the VA despite having no official position within the government. According to a previous ProPublica investigation, the men — Ike Perlmutter (chairman and CEO of Marvel Entertainment), Bruce Moskowitz (a doctor), and Marc Sherman (an attorney) — reviewed confidential, multi-billion projects on record-keeping, even though none of the men have any relevant experience.

In 2018, voters demanded that Trump and his culture of corruption be held accountable. Takano is heeding that call, and veterans groups are praising the effort.

The committee’s work “is absolutely crucial to getting to the bottom of this, and all veterans should encourage him to continue,” said Jon Soltz, chairman and co-founder of Vote Vets. While Vote Vets has its own lawsuit regarding this matter, Soltz added, “congressional oversight is indispensable.”

Unfortunately, Takano said, rather than cooperate with Congress, the Trump administration “keeps stonewalling our document request.”

“It’s time for transparency — our veterans deserve to know who is making their healthcare decisions,” Takano said.

Published with permission of The American Independent. 

 

Mar-a-Lago Pal Sent Policy Pitch — And Trump Forwarded To VA Chief

In late 2017, on one of President Donald Trump’s retreats to Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Palm Beach, Florida, he caught up with an old friend: Albert Hazzouri.

When Hazzouri is not at Mar-a-Lago, he’s a cosmetic dentist in Scranton, Pennsylvania. At a campaign rally there in 2016, Trump gave him a shoutout: “Stand up, Albert. Where the hell are you, Albert? Stand up, Albert. He’s a good golfer, but I’m actually a better golfer than him. Right?”

Shortly after Hazzouri and Trump saw each other in late 2017, Hazzouri followed up with a message, scrawled on Mar-a-Lago stationery. Here’s the letter:

mar-a-lago

In a telephone interview, Hazzouri said he sent the note as a favor to the 163,000-member American Dental Association. He said he had only the vaguest sense of what proposal he was vouching for.

“I’m really not involved in any politics, I’m just a small-time dentist,” he said. “I guess there’s a lot of money spent on veterans’ care and American Native Indians’ care, and I guess they wanted to have a little hand in it, the American Dental Association, to try to guide what’s going on or whatever.”

The idea seemed to intrigue Trump. He took a thick marker and wrote on top of Hazzouri’s note, “Send to David S at the V.A.,” referring to David Shulkin, then the secretary of veterans affairs. Next to the Mar-a-Lago coat of arms, an aide stamped: “The president has seen.”

It was not the first time Mar-a-Lago membership had bestowed access to the VA. As ProPublica revealed last year, Trump handed sweeping influence over the department to club member Ike Perlmutter, who is the chairman of Marvel Entertainment and was a major donor supporting Trump’s campaign, along with a physician and a lawyer who are regular guests at the resort. The trio, known as the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd,” acted as a shadow leadership for the department, reviewing all manner of policy and personnel decisions, including budgeting and contracting. The House veterans committee is now investigating the trio’s “alleged improper influence.”

Beyond the VA, Trump’s presidency has been rife with examples of special interests seeking influence through business associates or friends and family, rather than going through the normal channels. Shortly after the election, the Australian ambassador reportedly managed to contact Trump not through the State Department but thanks to golfer Greg Norman, and Trump’s post-election call with the Vietnamese premier was facilitated by Marc Kasowitz, a personal lawyer for Trump. Mega-donor Sheldon Adelson helped a friend’s obscure company secure a research deal with the Environmental Protection Agency, and inaugural chairman Tom Barrack provided support to a company seeking to export nuclear power technology to Saudi Arabia.

In Hazzouri’s case, the details of his pitch to “create an oversight committee” are murky. A spokeswoman for the American Dental Association, Katherine Merullo, declined to elaborate on the proposal. Michael Graham, who heads the ADA’s lobbying arm in Washington, recalled that one of his staffers raised the topic with Hazzouri, but Graham said he didn’t know the details. In general, Graham said, the organization wants the government to pay for more dental services.

“The ADA has been looking into how we can get involved in veterans’ issues,” Graham said. “Lots of vets may not be eligible but need care.”

The VA provides dental care only in limited instances, primarily when veterans have a dental injury related to their service. Many veterans also have Medicare, but that doesn’t cover most dental services either. The ADA has lobbied on bills that would expand dental services for veterans, arguing that better dental care leads to better health overall. Of course, it would also lead to more billable patients for the ADA’s members.

Hazzouri’s overture doesn’t appear to have succeeded. Shulkin, who was fired in March 2018, said in an email that he did not recall having received the message. Hazzouri said neither he nor the ADA ever got a meeting.

Hazzouri did, however, reference the proposal a few months later, in an effort to open an office in Florida.

“My intention is to establish a small office in order to treat the President, his family and visitors who may have dental needs while conducting official business,” Hazzouri wrote to the Florida Board of Dentistry in a February 2018 letter published by Politico. “An additional intention is to have the office serve as a dental delivery site on selected dates for U.S. veterans or children from underserved populations.”

Despite invoking the project as part of a bid to expand his business, Hazzouri said he wasn’t pursuing any personal benefit by pitching the ADA’s proposal to Trump. “I wasn’t doing this for any opportunity,” he said. “There are areas in Florida where they said it would be awesome to donate time.”

Hazzouri’s Florida office never materialized either: According to the minutes of his board hearing, Hazzouri hadn’t completed a required examination and withdrew his application for a license to practice in the state.

Hazzouri declined to explain why his note to Trump addressed him as “King,” calling it an inside joke from long before Trump became president. “I call other people King,” he said. “It’s a very personal thing.”

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.

Congress Probes Influence Of Trump Cronies At VA

Congress has launched an official investigation into how Trump allowed three wealthy members of his Mar-a-Lago club to exert sweeping influence over the Department of Veterans Affairs.

None of the three men — Ike Perlmutter (chairman and CEO of Marvel Entertainment), Bruce Moskowitz (a doctor), and Marc Sherman (an attorney) — had experience with veterans’ healthcare, or even any experience serving in the government or the military. Yet they were able to influence government decisions that affected the lives of American veterans, and may have made unethical profits for themselves in the process.

The chair of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, Rep. Mark Takano (D-CA), sent a letter to Robert Wilkie, the current Secretary for Veterans Affairs, informing him that the investigation of what Takano called the “Mar-a-Lago Three” is now underway.

Takano noted that the Mar-a-Lago Three were “not accountable to veterans and the American people” when they “ostensibly used their wealth and connections to President Trump and his family to make decisions for the Department.”

Citing public documents and related email traffic, Takano wrote that the department “apparently treated these Mar-a-Lago members as having decision-making authority.”

That allowed these inexperienced Trump cronies, who had no official role at the VA, to weigh in on official business like picking candidates to lead the department or organizing meetings between the VA and outside businesses.

Of particular concern for Takano is that the three men have “no experience delivering healthcare to veterans” — but they still tried to influence government decisions on healthcare delivery, and rejected advice from experts at the department, in order to benefit themselves.

Takano noted that the VA entered into an agreement with Apple that “could personally enrich Dr. Moskowitz and his family,” and that then-VA Secretary David Shulkin participated in a Veterans Day event at the New York Stock Exchange that promoted Marvel, Perlmutter’s company.

The scandal is an example both of Trump’s corruption — which the previous Republican-led Congress allowed to thrive unchecked — and his seemingly never-ending disdain for veterans and the military.

Voters clearly got sick of this behavior from Trump and Republicans, which is one reason the House, and its substantial investigative power, is now in Democratic hands. And now Congress can finally do its job and start defending veterans against Trump’s greed and disinterest.

Published with permission of The American Independent.