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Now In Government Food Aid Boxes, A Letter From Trump

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

Millions of Americans who are struggling to put food on the table may discover a new item in government-funded relief packages of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy and meat: a letter signed by President Donald Trump.

The message, printed on White House letterhead in both English and Spanish, touts the administration's response to the coronavirus, including aid provided through the Farmers to Families Food Box Program, a U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative to buy fresh food and ship it to needy families.

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Richest GOP Donor In South Dakota Was Probed For Child Pornography

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

T. Denny Sanford, the richest man in South Dakota and a major donor to children's charities, was being investigated for possible possession of child pornography, according to four people familiar with the probe.

Investigators with the South Dakota attorney general's Division of Criminal Investigation obtained a search warrant as part of the probe, according to two of the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. They said the case was referred to the Department of Justice for further investigation.

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How Sen. Collins Helped Big Hotel Chains Grab Small Business Funding

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

In March, as lawmakers raced to put together a massive stimulus package to cope with the pandemic-related shutdowns sweeping the country, a New York company that invests in hotels deployed a Washington lobbyist for the first time. The lobbyist's mission was to secure an exception in the emerging relief program for small businesses so that hotel chains would become eligible.

The company, EOS Investors, had more than 500 employees, putting it above the limit in the original proposal by Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME), and Marco Rubio (R-FL). But if the cap for hotels were set for each location instead of companywide, then EOS could benefit at several of its properties, like the collection of resorts that EOS had recently acquired in Kennebunkport, Maine.

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Trump Family, Cronies Cleared For Millions In Bailout Funds

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Businesses tied to President Donald Trump's family and associates stand to receive as much as $21 million in government loans designed to shore up payroll expenses for companies struggling amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to federal data released Monday.

A hydroponic lettuce farm backed by Trump's eldest son, Donald Jr., applied for at least $150,000 in Small Business Administration funding. Albert Hazzouri, a dentist frequently spotted at Mar-a-Lago, asked for a similar amount. A hospital run by Maria Ryan, a close associate of Trump lawyer and former mayor Rudy Giuliani, requested more than $5 million. Several companies connected to the president's son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, could get upward of $6 million.

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Trump’s Food Aid Program Swindles Hard-Hit Northeast States

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

President Donald Trump's signature food aid program is sending less relief to New York and New England than other parts of the country, even though the Northeast has the most coronavirus cases. Some states — Maine and Alaska at least — have been left out completely so far.

The regional imbalances are an unintended side effect of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's strategy in hiring private contractors to distribute food, the agency said. It is now looking for ways to reach areas that were passed over.

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Relief Program Pays $100M To Unlicensed Operators, Harming Food Banks

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

A food relief program championed by President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka is relying on some contractors who lack food distribution experience and aren't licensed to deal in fresh fruits and vegetables.

The contractors on Friday began delivering boxes containing fresh produce to food banks and other nonprofits. Forty-nine out of the 159 contractors picked by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deliver boxes containing produce don't have a requisite license from the same agency, according to a search of the USDA's database using the information released about the contractors.

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Trump Aiming To Cripple Bailout Oversight Board

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

In the wake of President Trump's move to push aside the official who was supposed to lead the coronavirus bailout watchdog group, four other members are just as vulnerable.

Trump was able to remove the panel's chosen head, Glenn Fine, by naming a new Defense Department inspector general and bumping Fine to the No. 2 job at the Pentagon watchdog office. No longer an acting inspector general, Fine was disqualified from serving on the panel he was supposed to lead.

Fine's removal sounded an alarm among Democrats in Congress, who had demanded that spending safeguards be built into the $2 trillion recovery package. House Democrats rushed out a proposed tweak that would stop further removals like Fine's by opening up eligibility to senior officials in IG offices, not just IGs themselves.

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How Tea Party Budget Mania Left America Vulnerable To Pandemic

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Dire shortages of vital medical equipment in the Strategic National Stockpile that are now hampering the coronavirus response trace back to the budget wars of the Obama years, when congressional Republicans elected on the Tea Party wave forced the White House to accept sweeping cuts to federal spending.

Among the victims of those partisan fights was the effort to keep adequate supplies of masks, ventilators, pharmaceuticals and other medical equipment on hand to respond to a public health crisis. Lawmakers in both parties raised the specter of shortchanging future disaster response even as they voted to approve the cuts.

"There are always more needs for financial support from our hardworking taxpayers than we have the ability to pay," said Denny Rehberg, a retired Republican congressman from Montana who chaired the appropriations subcommittee responsible for overseeing the stockpile in 2011. Rehberg said it would have been impossible to predict a public health crisis requiring a more robust stockpile, just as it would have been to predict the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

"It's really easy to second-guess and suggest we didn't do as much," he said. "Why didn't we have a protocol to protect the Twin Towers? Whoever thought that was going to happen? Whoever thought Hurricane Katrina was going to occur? You tell me what's going to happen in 2030, and I will communicate that to congressmen and senators."

There were, in fact, warnings at the time: A 2010 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention-funded report by the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials urged the federal government to treat public health preparedness "on par with federal and state funding for other national security response capabilities," and said that its store of N95 masks should be "replenished for future events."

But efforts to bulk up the stockpile fell apart in tense standoffs between the Obama White House and congressional Republicans, according to administration and congressional officials involved in the negotiations. Had Congress kept funding at the 2010 level through the end of the Obama administration, the stockpile would have benefited from $321 million more than it ended up getting, according to budget documents reviewed by ProPublica. During the Trump administration, Congress started giving the stockpile more than the White House requested.

By late February, the stockpile held just 12 million N95 respirator masks, a small fraction of what government officials say is needed for a severe pandemic. Now the emergency stash is running out of critical supplies and governors are struggling to understand the unclear procedures for how the administration is distributing the equipment.

The stockpile received a $17 billion influx in the first and third coronavirus stimulus bills that Congress passed in March. But there had not been a big boost in stockpile funding since 2009, in response to the H1N1 pandemic, commonly called swine flu.

After using up the swine flu emergency funds, the Obama administration tried to replenish the stockpile in 2011 by asking Congress to provide $655 million, up from the previous year's budget of less than $600 million. Responding to swine flu, which the CDC estimated killed more than 12,000 people in the United States over the course of a year, had required the largest deployment in the stockpile's history, including nearly 20 million pieces of personal protective equipment and more than 85 million N95 masks, according to a 2016 report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.

"We recognized the need for replenishment of the stockpile and budgeted about a 10 percent increase," said Dr. Nicole Lurie, who served as the assistant secretary for preparedness and response at the Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration. "That was rejected by the Republican House."

Republicans took over the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms on the Tea Party wave of opposition to the landmark 2010 health care reform law, the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The new House majority was intent on curbing government spending, especially at HHS, which administered Obamacare.

Congressional Republicans, led by Mitch McConnell in the Senate and House Speaker John Boehner, leveraged the debt ceiling — a limit on the government's borrowing ability that had to be raised — to insist that the Obama administration accept federal spending curbs. The compromise, codified in the 2011 Budget Control Act, required a bipartisan "super committee" to find additional ways to reduce the deficit, or else it would trigger automatic across-the-board cuts known as "sequestration."

Even in the aftermath of the swine flu pandemic, the stockpile wasn't a priority then. Without a full committee markup, Rehberg introduced a bill that provided $522.5 million to the stockpile, about 12 percent less than the previous year and $132 million less than the administration wanted. "Nobody got everything they wanted," Rehberg said.

The Senate version of the funding bill offered $561 million for stockpile funding. Senators said they regretted the cuts even as they voted for the bill.

"In this bill we're now getting into the bone marrow," Tom Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa who then chaired the Senate appropriations committee, said at the markup. "Some of these cuts will be painful and unpopular."

In the bill's final version, Congress allocated a compromise $534 million for the 2012 fiscal year, a 10 percent budget cut from the prior year and $121 million less than the Obama administration had requested.

The next year, the "super committee" failed to secure additional savings demanded by the Budget Control Act, triggering the automatic, across-the-board cuts. This "sequestration" was an outcome that the leaders of both parties disliked — and blamed one another for.

"Did either party ever indicate sequestration was welcome, positive or desirable?" Dave Schnittger, Boehner's deputy chief of staff at the time, told ProPublica. "Sequestration was conceived — not by Republicans, but by a Democratic White House — as a crude mechanism to compel the super committee to do its job. Republicans consistently advocated for reductions in mandatory spending programs that would have prevented sequestration from ever happening." (Mandatory spending refers to entitlement programs such as Social Security and Medicare.)

McConnell's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Katie Hill, a spokeswoman for Obama, pointed to numerous statements he made in 2013 urging Republicans to compromise, warning that the sequester would weaken economic recovery, military readiness and basic public services.

Gene Sperling, then a top Obama economic adviser, said Republicans focused attacks on the HHS budget, along with the Departments of Labor and Education, which are grouped under the same appropriations subcommittee.

"The Labor/HHS budget is where a significant number of progressive priorities are, from Head Start to (the National Institutes of Health) to the Education Department," Sperling said. "There's just so much in there, so it is often the hot spot for where conservative budget hawks who don't believe in public investment go hardest."

Under sequestration, the CDC, which managed the stockpile at the time, faced a 5 percent budget cut. In its 2013 budget submission, HHS decreased its stockpile funding request from the previous year, asking for $486 million, a cut of nearly $48 million. "The SNS is a key resource in maintaining public health preparedness and response," the administration said. "However, the current fiscal climate necessitates scaling back."

The decrease caught Rehberg's attention at a budget hearing to review the request.

"Disaster preparedness is something that has been very important to me," he said at the hearing. "I just would like to have you explain how such a large reduction can possibly not impact the national preparedness posture."

Then-HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius answered that the CDC would prioritize replacing expiring drugs such as smallpox vaccines and anthrax treatments.

The next year, the administration again proposed cutting the stockpile's funding from the 2012 funding level, but it warned that reduced funding could result in "fewer people receiving treatment during an influenza pandemic."

Congress did grant extra funding in response to emergencies, but even then, the stockpile was a small-ticket item. In 2014, the Obama administration asked for and received billions of dollars to respond to the Ebola outbreak, but only $165 million went to the CDC's public health emergency preparedness programs, including the stockpile. And in 2016, Congress granted emergency funding to respond to the Zika virus, but it gave the CDC less than half of what the Obama administration requested.

"It's clear that the administration prioritized the SNS in this (Zika) request and in the Ebola supplemental," said Ned Price, who was a spokesman for the National Security Council in the Obama White House. "In the case of Zika, congressional Republicans sat on the request for the better part of a year."

The stockpile's mission has steadily expanded as it confronts new public health emergencies. With limited resources, officials in charge of the stockpile tend to focus on buying lifesaving drugs from small biotechnology firms that would, in the absence of a government buyer, have no other market for their products, experts said. Masks and other protective equipment are in normal times widely available and thus may not have been prioritized for purchase, they said.

"It just was never funded at the level that was needed to purchase new products, to replace expiring products and to invest in what we now know are the really necessary ancillary products," said Dara Lieberman, director of government relations at the Trust for America's Health, a nonpartisan public health advocacy and research group.

The sequestration and strict budget caps ended with budget deals in 2018 and 2019 — a bipartisan rebuke to the earlier restraints. "It's a burden off our shoulders," Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala., told reporters at the time. "In a troubled world, I think that was the wrong message."

Yet non-defense spending still hasn't fully recovered.

"One of the things that happened to public health preparedness was just the result of the general budget stringency we had," said David Reich, a consultant working on federal appropriations issues for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "We're still seeing the results of that."

During the Trump administration, the White House has consistently proposed cutting the CDC and the HHS Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, which took over stockpile management from the CDC. Congress approved more stockpile funding than Trump's budget requested in every year of his administration, for a combined $1.93 billion instead of $1.77 billion, according to budget documents.

The White House budget request for 2021, delivered in February as officials were already warning about the dangerous new coronavirus, proposed holding the stockpile's funding flat at $705 million and cutting resources for the office that oversees it.

Lydia DePillis contributed reporting.

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Trump Fails To Mobilize VA Hospital Resources For Covid-19 Emergency

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

The Trump administration is leaving untapped reinforcements and supplies from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, even as many hospitals are struggling with a crush of coronavirus patients.

The VA serves nine million veterans through 170 hospitals and more than 1,000 clinics, but it’s also legally designated as the country’s backup health system in an emergency. As part of the National Disaster Medical System, the VA has deployed doctors and equipment to disasters and emergencies in recent instances such as Hurricane Maria and the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. The VA system has 13,000 acute care beds, including 1,800 intensive care unit beds.

But for the coronavirus pandemic, VA Secretary Robert Wilkie told lawmakers this week that the agency won’t spring into action on its own. Instead of responding to pleas for help from states and cities, Wilkie said he’s waiting for direction from the Department of Health and Human Services or the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

And those calls, for the most part, haven’t come. HHS hasn’t asked the VA for significant help with the coronavirus pandemic. FEMA did not take a leading role in the government’s response until last Friday, and it has yet to involve the VA either.

“VA stands ready to support civilian health care systems in the event those systems encounter capacity issues,” press secretary Christina Mandreucci said. “At this time, VA has not received specific requests from FEMA for assistance.”

The White House referred questions to the VA. The VA referred a question about taking directions from HHS and FEMA to those agencies. HHS referred questions to FEMA, and FEMA referred questions to the VA.

The VA has fielded a handful of limited tasks. It asked 12 health technicians and nursing assistants to volunteer to help HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention with coronavirus screenings for two weeks in February. The agency sent 14 medical technicians to help HHS with screenings at an Air Force base in California where evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship were being quarantined. And a spokeswoman for CalVet, the state’s veterans agency, told ProPublica that the VA emergency manager in the region has helped provide supplies such as N95 masks.

Lawmakers are frustrated to see the VA largely sitting on its hands as the crisis escalates.

“It is unconscionable that HHS has not utilized every tool it has to address the real suffering of individuals in this nation and called upon VA,” Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs committee, said in a March 25 letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar. “States, communities and patients are already suffering as a result of HHS’s inaction. Get them help now.”

According to the VA’s pandemic plan released on Friday, the agency’s role in the governmentwide response may include helping emergency responders with protective gear, screening and training; helping to staff FEMA’s operations teams; dispatching advisers to state and local public health authorities; supplying medicines and equipment; and helping with burials.

The stimulus deal that the Senate passed late Wednesday includes $27 billion for HHS to reimburse the VA for providing care to the general public. That’s on top of $20 billion to help the VA care for veterans.

Just a month ago, at a House budget hearing, Wilkie declined additional funding. “Right now I don’t see a need for us,” he said. “We are set.”

The VA held its first planning meeting on the coronavirus on Jan. 22, the day after the first case was confirmed in the U.S., according to the agency’s response to an inspector general report released Thursday. But the department did not implement measures until two days after the World Health Organization formally declared a pandemic, on March 11. The VA did not issue guidance on screening patients until March 16.

Wilkie abruptly fired his deputy last month and is under investigation by the VA’s inspector general for allegedly seeking damaging information about a congressional staffer who said she was sexually assaulted at a VA hospital. (He denies doing so.) Wilkie took time off in recent weeks and has taken a back seat at White House task force meetings. Since joining the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force on March 2, Wilkie has spoken publicly only once, on March 18. (Mandreucci said Wilkie has attended 20 task force meetings.) At that time, Wilkie said the VA was preparing to join the disaster response but had not yet engaged.

“We are the buttress force in case that FEMA or HHS calls upon us to deploy medical professionals across the country to meet crises,” Wilkie said. “We plan for that every day. We are gaming out emergency preparedness scenarios. And we stand ready, when the president needs us, to expand our mission.”

Wilkie told Politico the VA was preparing to deploy 3,000 doctors, nurses and other emergency workers but had no timeline.

The VA’s role as the country’s emergency medical backup was first established by Congress in 1982 and is known as the agency’s “Fourth Mission.” (The first three missions are sometimes identified as care, training and research, and other times as health, benefits and memorials.) This month, a description of this Fourth Mission was suddenly scrubbed from the website of the VA’s Office of Emergency Management. Mandreucci noted it appeared on a different page.

The VA’s ability to support FEMA could be limited by demands from its own patients, who are largely older and part of the demographic that’s most vulnerable to the coronavirus. As of Friday, the VA had 571 patients who tested positive and nine who have died.

The VA’s inspector general said in a report on Thursday that health center leaders reported concerns about running out of medicines and protective gear. Leaders at the VA hospitals in Durham, North Carolina, and Detroit said they needed more ventilators. The inspector general’s report said 43% of the facility leaders surveyed planned to share ICU beds or protective gear with local providers.

“That assistance is dependent upon the availability of resources and funding, and consistency with VA’s mission to provide priority services to veterans,” Wilkie said in a March 23 letter to lawmakers.

On Facebook, Far-Right Firefighters Call Coronavirus “A Hoax”

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

In a 27,000-member private Facebook group for first responders who support President Donald Trump, firefighters and paramedics have posted thousands of comments in recent weeks downplaying the coronavirus pandemic that they are responsible for helping to handle.

Posts in the group, which is called IAFF Union Firefighters for Trump and has been endorsed by Trump, scoffed at the seriousness of the virus, echoing false assertions by Trump and his allies comparing it to the seasonal flu. “Every election year has a disease,” read one meme, purporting to be written on a doctor’s office whiteboard. “This is a viral-pneumonia being hyped as The Black Plague before an election.”

As of Monday, there were 4,464 cases and 78 deaths in the U.S., according to researchers at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

As confirmed cases and deaths expanded and officials began shutting down mass gatherings and public places, the posts intensified their attacks on Democrats and the media. “I believe this is all by design,” wrote a Texas firefighter whose identity was corroborated by ProPublica. “Democrats have wanted to slow down and even kill the economy. It’s the only hope they have of beating Trump. Sad and disgusting the depths of shit the Democrats will descend to in order to gain power.”

Posts containing factual information or firsthand experiences with the virus were met with more accusations of plots to harm Trump’s reelection. When a Florida firefighter said action was required now to prevent a crisis like is currently underway in Italy, where 27,980 have been infected and 2,158 have died, because the virus spreads at an exponential rate, the first reply was poop emojis and “Trump2020.”

Some comments promoted a baseless conspiracy theory that the virus is a biological weapon developed by the Chinese in collaboration with Democrats.

“By the Chinese to stop the riots in Hong Kong,” one member wrote.

“[Y]ou are absolutely correct,” another replied. “I said that in the beginning. Democrats saw an opportunity to use it against Trump and get rid of older people which they have been trying to do for a while.”

Commenters contacted by ProPublica declined to answer questions or didn’t respond to messages. ProPublica reviewed hundreds of screenshots provided by co-workers of members of the group who asked to be anonymous, fearing retaliation. Those people said the social media posts are not idle online venting — they reflect real-world attitudes that are leading some first responders to potentially shun special plans and protective equipment. That dismissiveness, the people said, could put first responders and others at risk as they attend to emergency calls with potentially infected people.

Leaders at the International Association of Fire Fighters are also concerned. “I’ve read the social media. I know there are going to be accusations that this is all hype,” Jim Brinkley, IAFF assistant to the general president for technical and information resources, said in a video that the union posted online. “If we ignore it, if we take it lightly, we will set a new standard in the wrong direction for infectious disease in this country.”

Firefighters and paramedics, who jointly respond to 911 calls in most places, are among those at the greatest risk of encountering the coronavirus, and their exposure could endanger others if they have to be quarantined and are no longer available to work. Dozens of firefighters who responded to the nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, that was a hot spot of the outbreak had to be quarantined for weeks.

The private Facebook group was formed last year to protest the IAFF’s official endorsement of Democratic presidential hopeful Joe Biden. Trump encouraged his followers to join the Facebook group in May 2019.

The group’s founder, Kelly Hallman, told ProPublica he doesn’t speak for everyone who posts, but he can understand why many emergency professionals share his skepticism about the coronavirus. He said previous outbreaks such as SARS, the H1N1 “swine flu” and Ebola didn’t prompt such a big response, and he thinks the reason is politics.

“There’s never been this much hoopla given to the other things,” Hallman said. “They’re doing it to crash the economy and make Trump look bad.”

Hallman’s view hasn’t changed as Trump went from calling concerns over the coronavirus a “hoax” on Feb. 28 to declaring a national emergency on Friday. Hallman said Trump has had to address fears stirred up by the media.

“If you had to point a finger at why the leftist media and the left in general has a smile on their face about this whole thing, it’s the Dow,” Hallman said, referring to the historic decline in stock prices. “My wife and kids are scared, they’re believing what they’re seeing on TV. And I’m trying to tell them it’s not as bad as the media makes it out.”

Public health experts are unified in calling for drastic measures to contain and mitigate the spread in the U.S. “When you’re dealing with an emerging infectious diseases outbreak, you are always behind where you think you are,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said at a White House press conference on Monday. “It will always seem that the best way to address it would be doing something that looks like it might be an overreaction. It’s not an overreaction. It’s a reaction that we feel is commensurate with what is actually going on in reality.”

The government’s guidelines, Fauci said, “will fail if people don’t adhere to them.”

IAFF spokesman Doug Stern said views like those expressed in the Facebook group reflect the minority of first responders, citing conversations with local leaders who are eager for more information about how to prepare for the coronavirus.

“Our leadership is aware of this issue, and we are taking it seriously because we know how important it is,” Stern said of COVID-19. Most important, Stern said, is for 911 callers to tell the dispatcher if anyone is experiencing flu-like symptoms so responders can wear protective gear and send a smaller team.

Caroline Chen contributed reporting.

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Acting Spy Chief Grenell Worked For ‘Corrupt’ Moldovan Oligarch

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

President Donald Trump’s new acting intelligence director, Richard Grenell, used to do consulting work on behalf of an Eastern European oligarch who is now a fugitive and was recently barred from entering the U.S. under anti-corruption sanctions imposed last month by the State Department.

In 2016, Grenell wrote several articles defending the oligarch, a Moldovan politician named Vladimir Plahotniuc, but did not disclose that he was being paid, according to records and interviews. Grenell also did not register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), which generally requires people to disclose work in the U.S. on behalf of foreign politicians.

FARA is the same law that Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort and former deputy campaign manager Rick Gates were convicted of violating. (Manafort went to trial. Gates pleaded guilty.)

It’s not clear whether the articles were directly part of Grenell’s paid consulting work for Plahotniuc. Unpaid work could still require disclosures under FARA if it was directed by or primarily benefited a foreign politician, according to Matthew Sanderson, a lawyer at Caplin & Drysdale who advises people on complying with FARA. FARA contains several exemptions, such as for lawyers and businesses, Sanderson said, but none appear to apply to Grenell’s op-eds about Plahotniuc.

“There is real reason to believe that Mr. Grenell should have registered here,” Sanderson said after ProPublica described the circumstances to him. “This is exactly the type of circumstances I’d expect the Department of Justice to investigate further.”

Craig Engle, an attorney with the law firm Arent Fox, said he was responding to ProPublica’s questions on Grenell’s behalf. Engle declined to say what Grenell’s paid consulting work involved but said he did not have to register under FARA “because he was not working at the direction of a foreign power.”

“Ric was not paid to write these stories, in fact he has written hundreds of stories on his own time to express his own views,” Engle said. “But to be clear: he was not working for any individual, he was working for himself and was advocating the ideal of a pro-western political party that was emerging.”

Undisclosed work for a foreign politician would ordinarily pose a problem for anyone applying for a security clearance or a job in a U.S. intelligence agency because it could make the person susceptible to foreign influence or blackmail, according to the official policy from the office that Trump tapped Grenell to lead.

The policy specifies that among the “conditions that could raise a security concern and may be disqualifying” are:

  • “Failure to report or fully disclose, when required, association with a foreign person, group, government or country.”
  • “Substantial business, financial, or property interests in a foreign country … that could subject the individual to a heightened risk of foreign influence or exploitation or personal conflict of interest.”
  • “Acting to serve the interest of a foreign person, group, organization or government in any way that conflicts with U.S. national security interests.”

“That’s really easy, he should not have a clearance,” said Kel McClanahan, a Washington-area lawyer specializing in security clearances. “If he were one of my clients and just a normal [federal employee], he would almost assuredly not have a clearance.”

McClanahan said it’s unclear how Grenell could have already gotten a clearance as an ambassador. The House Oversight Committee is investigating whether the Trump administration has overruled career officials in granting security clearances to political appointees.

As Trump’s pick for acting director of national intelligence, Grenell will have access to the country’s most sensitive secrets. Grenell isn’t subject to Senate confirmation because Trump appointed him on a temporary basis.

The White House, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Grenell, who is also continuing in his current posts as ambassador to Germany and special envoy for negotiations between Kosovo and Serbia, has gained Trump’s favor with his unwavering loyalty and combative tweets. (In one instance, he attacked ProPublica in response to reporting that Vice President Mike Pence’s office had intervened in foreign aid decisions.) He raised hackles in Berlin by injecting himself into the country’s domestic politics, a departure from usual diplomatic protocol.

Grenell does not have prior experience in intelligence. He was the U.S. spokesman at the United Nations during the George W. Bush administration.

In between his turns in government, Grenell had a public affairs consulting firm called Capitol Media Partners. One of the firm’s clients, according to the financial disclosure that Grenell filed when he became an ambassador, was Arthur J. Finkelstein, the late Republican political consultant whose international clients included Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary. Grenell’s financial disclosure indicates that he received more than $5,000 from Finkelstein’s firm but does not specify how much.

According to a person familiar with the relationship, Grenell worked for Finkelstein as a media consultant for clients in Eastern Europe. That person and another individual said the client in Moldova was Plahotniuc, the country’s richest man and then a top official in its ruling political party.

In August 2016, Grenell published op-eds in the right-leaning Washington Examiner and Washington Times defending Plahotniuc and attacking his enemies as serving Russian interests. Plahotniuc and his allies at the time were fending off suspicions of their involvement in a $1 billion bank fraud in Moldova. “Blaming the ruling party and its leadership has its political benefits for Russia,” Grenell wrote in the Examiner article. “Plahotniuc has been around Moldovan politics, business and civic life for decades and has turned out to be an easy target.”

This narrative aligned with Plahotniuc’s efforts to present himself as pro-Western in Washington and European capitals, according to lobbying disclosure records. “Certainly there was an effort by him to engage U.S. officials at the time, that despite all this corruption he was the guy most likely to keep Russia at bay and therefore you should accept him,” said Jonathan Katz, who oversaw U.S. aid programs for Moldova at the time. “It didn’t match anything he was doing internally in the country,” Katz said, because Plahotniuc didn’t advance U.S. interests such as promoting democratic institutions and the rule of law.

Grenell was also quoted in an October 2016 article in the Houston Chronicle criticizing a resolution proposed by Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, that accused Plahotniuc and his allies of corruption. “He’s trying to attack the only pro-European group in Moldova,” Grenell told the Chronicle.

“The reality is he’s pro-himself and nothing more,” Valeriu Pașa, who leads a prominent civil society group in Moldova called WatchDog.MD, said of Plahotniuc. “He was playing both sides for 15 years at least.”

Plahotniuc lost power in 2019 and fled Moldova. His current whereabouts are unknown. Last month, the State Department endorsed the corruption allegations against him, banning him and his family from entering the U.S.

“In his official capacity, Plahotniuc was involved in corrupt acts that undermined the rule of law and severely compromised the independence of democratic institutions in Moldova,” the State Department said in its announcement. “Today’s action sends a strong signal the United States does not tolerate corruption and stands with the people of Moldova in their fight against it.”

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

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.

Fox News’ Hegseth Lobbies Trump For Profit-Making Colleges

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Pete Hegseth, the Fox News personality who urged President Donald Trump to pardon service members charged with war crimes, is trying to influence the White House on another military-related cause.

An Army veteran who talks to Trump periodically and has dined with him at the White House, Hegseth traveled to New Orleans in June to address leaders of for-profit colleges at their annual convention. They are pushing to enroll more veterans, a lucrative class of students — and Hegseth is the face of the colleges’ new campaign to defend a favorable carve-out in federal law.

Under the law, for-profit colleges can’t receive more than 90 percent of their revenue from federal education funds. The logic, according to the staffer who drafted the provision, was that the education should be good enough that at least some students are willing to pay. But veterans’ benefits, such as GI Bill stipends, don’t count as federal education funds (even though they also come from the federal government).

This “90/10 loophole” means that for every veteran enrolled, a school can admit nine more students using federal loans. Veterans advocates and congressional investigators say this loophole leads to predatory and deceptive marketing tactics that sometimes leave veterans with unexpected debt and useless degrees if schools lose their accreditation or go out of business.

Hegseth has pushed back on that criticism, framing the issue as protecting veterans’ freedom to choose where they go to school. Speaking at the Career Education Colleges and Universities convention in New Orleans, Hegseth pledged to use his relationship with Trump to fend off legislation to close the 90/10 loophole.

“Right now you’ve got a president that would veto the bad stuff,” he said in the speech, which was flagged at the time by Media Matters, a Democrat-aligned group that scrutinizes Fox News and other right-wing media. “And if he ever gave me a call — and sometimes he does — I’d tell him that.”

Trump has indeed dialed Hegseth into the Oval Office to discuss veterans policy and considered appointing him as secretary of veterans affairs. A frequent presence on the president’s favorite morning show, “Fox & Friends,” Hegseth has interviewed Trump on the air multipletimes and been the subject of several of Trump’s adoringtweets. Hegseth prominently encouraged Trump to grant pardons or other relief in high-profile war crimes cases, which the president he did on Friday.

Since June, Hegseth has given at least 11 speeches for CECU and related groups, according to posts on his Twitterfeed and the organizations’ websites. One of the appearances billed his keynote as “sponsored by Career Education Colleges and Universities.”

Hegseth declined to comment. “I can’t give interviews because I work for Fox News,” he said before hanging up. He did not respond to follow-up questions sent by text message.

Fox News and CECU didn’t respond to requests for comment.

While Hegseth and CECU would not discuss his compensation, he has in the past spoken to political groups that paid $5,000 to $10,000 to his agency, Premiere Speakers Bureau, according to campaign finance records compiled by Media Matters. Premiere did not respond to requests for comment.

CECU has paid another advocate, Callista Gingrich, at least $5,000, according to the financial disclosure she filed for her appointment as Trump’s ambassador to the Vatican.

In addition to the speeches, Hegseth published two op-eds, on the websites of Fox News and The Hill. The articles defend for-profit colleges and attack veterans groups that oppose the 90/10 loophole. Neither article disclosed Hegseth’s work for CECU. A spokeswoman for The Hill, Lisa Dallos, said Hegseth told the newspaper he doesn’t have a “paid relationship” with CECU and signed paperwork saying he doesn’t have a conflict of interest.

The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment about Hegseth’s advocacy efforts. (Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has also championed for-profit schools.) But Hegseth’s suggestion that Trump would use his veto pen to protect for-profit colleges is looking less hypothetical than in June when he spoke in New Orleans.

On Thursday, four senators introduced the upper chamber’s first-ever bipartisan bill to close the 90/10 loophole. “This bill puts reasonable protections in place that are fair to veterans, taxpayers, and schools,” Sen. James Lankford, R-Okla., one of the co-sponsors, said in a statement. “This bill is a bipartisan solution to put the best interest of our veterans first while also recognizing that the majority of for-profit post-secondary institutions, but unfortunately not all, offer quality programs that accommodate the needs and unique skill sets of our veterans and service members.”

The senators’ announcement for the bill included endorsements from the American Legion and Veterans Education Success, which were both called out by name in Hegseth’s most recent op-ed, as well as from seven other organizations representing veterans and service members.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

Trump Pal Barrack Promoted Saudi Nuke Deal

Reprinted with permission from Pro Publica.

 

President Donald Trump’s inauguration chairman, Tom Barrack, lobbied the new administration to share nuclear power technology with Saudi Arabia while, at the same time, making plans to team up with the Saudis to buy a company that would benefit from the policy change, according to documents obtained by a House committee.

During the campaign, Barrack advised Trump on the Middle East, where he has long-standing business relationships. As Trump clinched the Republican nomination in 2016, Barrack shared a draft of a policy speech with a businessman from the United Arab Emirates, according to text messages quoted in the committee’s report. The businessman then consulted with unspecified others and suggested adding a paragraph praising the powerful princes of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the text messages show.

Barrack incorporated the suggested language and sent a new draft to campaign chairman Paul Manafort, according to the report. In an email, Barrack seemed to suggest he knew he was entering an ethical or legal gray area: “This is probably as close as I can get without crossing a lot of lines,” he said.

On the day of the speech, Manafort sent Barrack a final draft, saying, “It has the language you want.”

The Democratic staff of the House Oversight Committee said the documents it received — 60,000 pages from various private companies — do not show whether candidate Trump was aware that his speech had been circulated to at least one foreign official. The report also does not indicate why Barrack wanted foreign input on the speech.

But Barrack, a billionaire investor, went on to pursue a lucrative deal based on the Trump administration’s Middle East policy, a policy that he was helping to shape.

Barrack’s plan, according to the documents, was for his firm and other U.S. investors to join with Saudi Arabia and the UAE to buy Westinghouse, the struggling U.S. manufacturer of nuclear reactors. At the same time, Barrack used his access to the White House to urge top officials to give Westinghouse permission to sell as many as 30 nuclear reactors to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

When Westinghouse went to a different buyer, Barrack sought a $50 million stake, according to the documents. The Trump administration is still considering whether to allow Westinghouse to sell reactors to Saudi Arabia — an idea opposed by nonproliferation experts and lawmakers from both parties who fear the kingdom could repurpose the technology to build a nuclear bomb.

Barrack’s role in the proposed Saudi nuclear deal is now part of a federal investigation into illegal foreign lobbying, The New York Times reported on Sunday. Prosecutors have questioned Barrack in the probe, which arose from special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and was referred to the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, according to the Times.

Barrack’s spokesman said he cooperated with and provided documents to the House committee. “Barrack’s engagement in investment and business development throughout the Middle East for the purpose of better aligned Middle East and U.S. objectives are well known,” the spokesman said in a statement. “Barrack’s consistent attempts to bridge the divide of tolerance and understanding between these two great cultures is etched in the annals of time.”

A spokesman for the U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment.

Federal law requires anyone working to influence U.S. policy on behalf of foreign governments to report their activities to the Justice Department. Manafort, deputy campaign manager Rick Gates and ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn all admitted to violating this law. Barrack did not file any disclosures about his contacts with the Saudis and Emiratis while he was helping to shape Trump’s policies toward the region.

When ProPublica interviewed Barrack in 2017, he acknowledged an interest in investing in Westinghouse, saying, “Westinghouse in bankruptcy today is a business opportunity for lots of people like me.” But the newly released documents reveal that Barrack’s efforts were more serious and advanced than previously known.

“The American people deserve to know the facts about whether the White House is willing to place the potential profits of the president’s personal friends above the national security of the American people and the universal objective of preventing the spread of nuclear weapons,” the committee’s chairman, Rep. Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, said in a statement on Monday.

The White House didn’t immediately respond to questions. The White House and multiple federal agencies did not cooperate with the committee’s investigation. Trump has spent the past several days tweeting insults at Cummings.

The committee’s Republican staff released its own report last week defending the administration against Democrats’ allegations of wrongdoing.

The Emirati businessman whom Barrack consulted on the campaign speech, Rashid al-Malik, is close to the UAE’s powerful prince and his brother who heads the country’s intelligence services, according to the Times. Al-Malik met with prosecutors in 2018 and then left the country, the Times reported. His lawyer, Bill Coffield, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

During the campaign, Barrack, an Arabic-speaking son of Lebanese immigrants, proposed deepening economic ties through a “Middle East Marshall Plan,” named after the American aid program to postwar Europe. After Trump’s inauguration, Barrack’s “Marshall Plan” turned into an effort to build nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia, according to the committee’s report.

Barrack discussed the idea with officials, including senior adviser Jared Kushner, chief strategist Steve Bannon, chief of staff Reince Priebus and economic adviser Gary Cohn, according to the committee’s report. In March 2017, Barrack and Gates, who then worked for Barrack’s company, met with the president about the “Trump Middle East Marshall Plan,” according to correspondence obtained by the House committee.

Barrack talked to Trump and Kushner about leading the initiative as a special envoy to the Middle East, according to messages quoted in the report.

“I have been discussing a position with POTUS and Jared which would focus primarily on the commercial and economic aspects of the new economic development plan across the region,” Barrack said in a March 2017 email to the UAE’s ambassador to Washington, Yousef al Otaiba. “Would love to talk to you in depth about it when you have time!”

“Why don’t we try to get together with Adel next week, all three of us so we can brainstorm together,” Otaiba replied, referring to Adel al-Jubeir, a top Saudi diplomat. “Adel is a very close friend of mine and we often conspire together.”

The Emirati Embassy didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Had Barrack taken an official position, he would have become subject to federal laws against conflicts of interest. But as the prospect of a diplomatic appointment faded, Barrack positioned himself to profit from the economic strategy he helped shape.

“We should revisit westinghouse issue!” Barrack texted Kushner in May 2017. “Interesting opportunity.”

Barrack approached private equity giants Apollo and Blackstone about joining their bid to buy Westinghouse, according to the report. In a September 2017 memo from Barrack, he said the firms would combine their funds with money from Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

But Westinghouse went with a competing bid, from the Canadian investment firm Brookfield. Barrack contacted Brookfield’s CEO asking to get involved, and Brookfield invited Barrack’s firm to make a $50 million investment, according to a February 2018 slide presentation quoted in the report.

The report does not make clear whether the investment went through. A person familiar with the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the investment didn’t end up happening.

Saudi Arabia still needs to sign a treaty with the U.S. before it can build nuclear power plants using U.S. technology. But the administration has already given some nuclear companies permission to share sensitive information with the Saudis. Lawmakers are furious that they weren’t notified and that the administration has forged ahead despite the Saudis’ role in the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

In February 2019, Trump met with representatives from the nuclear industry about the Saudi deal. The White House meeting was organized by a retired general whose company had worked with Barrack to advance the proposal, according to the House committee’s report. The company, IP3, planned a follow-up meeting in March with the national security adviser, John Bolton, but Bolton’s assistant canceled because of “legal and ethical concerns,” according to an email quoted in the report.

The White House meeting unnerved some of the other industry participants, according to emails quoted in the report. One email, sent by an executive who was not identified, called IP3’s proposal “dangerous-sounding” and a “flashing red warning light.” A different executive said, “Most participants are still concerned that IP3 is setting everyone up.” Another called IP3 the “Theranos of the nuclear industry,” referring to the blood-test startup whose founder has been charged with criminal fraud.

Barrack, however, was enthusiastic to throw in with IP3. In a January 2017 email after meeting with IP3 co-founder Robert “Bud” McFarlane (the Reagan national security adviser who pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress and was later pardoned), Barrack wrote, “Bud I would follow you and your team almost anywhere!”

 

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.”

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VA Paying Thousands For Top Official’s Cross-Country Commute

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs paid $13,000 over a three-month period for a senior official’s biweekly commute to Washington from his home in California, according to expense reports obtained by ProPublica.

The official, Darin Selnick, is a senior adviser to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie and has played a key role in developing the administration’s controversial new rules on referring veterans to private doctors. The proposal, announced last month, has drawn opposition from some lawmakers and veterans groups.

Selnick lived in Washington during a previous stint in the Trump administration, from January 2017 until March or April 2018, earning a $165,000 salary. He rejoined the VA in late October 2018 and started flying to Washington from California for two weeks out of every month, at taxpayer expense.

Selnick’s expenses included $3,885.60 for six round-trip flights in coach, $5,595.46 for 23 nights in hotels and $1,976 for meals, the reports show. The expense reports, which ProPublica obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, cover six trips between Oct. 21, 2018, and Jan. 19, 2019.

“It is unclear to me what role this person has at the VA, and why the VA is paying so much for him to travel back and forth,” House veterans committee chairman Mark Takano said in a statement responding to the expense reports. “The funding allocated to VA should be used efficiently and effectively to provide benefits and health care for our veterans.”

Several top Trump administration officials have faced scrutiny over their travel expenses. Government investigators have reviewed former Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price’s use of private jets, ex-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first-class flights, and the president’s own getaways to Mar-a-Lago, his private club in Florida.

Like Selnick, outcoming FEMA Administrator Brock Long charged taxpayers for his regular trips home from Washington. Long, who agreed to reimburse the government after an investigation, resigned Wednesday.

There’s a long tradition in Washington of members of Congress and political appointees splitting time between the capital and their home states. Rules about what expenses the government will cover versus what must be paid out of pocket vary widely depending the person’s role and responsibilities.

Selnick’s arrangement might violate the letter, or at least the spirit, of federal regulations, according to Walter Shaub, the former director of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics who has become an outspoken critic of the Trump administration. Ordinarily, an employee in the VA secretary’s office would be based in Washington and therefore not entitled to paid travel to get there. However, the agency could cover Selnick’s travel to Washington if his official work location, or “duty station,” were in California. Then the question would be why an adviser to the secretary belongs 2,700 miles away.

“It starts to look like they set his duty station in California just so he can have free flights,” Shaub said. “It may or may not violate a specific rule, but it would be a management decision that could be called wasteful, and the inspector general would likely fault them for that.”

In the records released to ProPublica, there is a line on Selnick’s travel vouchers that is supposed to specify his duty station, but it was left blank.

Selnick declined to comment. Two top VA press officials, Curt Cashour and Susan Carter, didn’t respond to e-mailed questions.

Former VA Secretary David Shulkin was fired last year after the agency’s inspector general said he misused resources on a trip to Europe. Shulkin disputed the inspector general’s conclusions but agreed to pay back the government.

Trump says he’s “done more for the vets than any president has done.” But he has stirred anxiety over privatizing the agency’s hospital system, and has given sweeping influence over the agency to three associates at Mar-a-Lago.

Selnick has had extensive contact with the Mar-a-Lago trio: Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter, West Palm Beach physician Bruce Moskowitz, and lawyer Marc Sherman. In emails obtained by ProPublica last year, Selnick said he valued Moskowitz’s input more than the views of VA experts. Selnick also assisted Moskowitz’s push for the VA and Apple to adapt an app that Moskowitz developed for finding nearby medical services, according to the emails.

Selnick is a prominent critic of the VA’s government-run health system. In between his time in government, he has worked for Concerned Veterans for America, a political group funded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch that has advocated for expanding private care for veterans. In 2016, Selnick signed onto a report that called the VA “seriously broken” with “no efficient path to repair it” and proposed shifting all veterans to the private sector.

“Darin Selnick should not be diverting money from the VA to fund his bicoastal crusade to privatize and destroy the VA,” J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing VA staff, said in a statement. “It’s time for Mr. Selnick to come clean about his shadowy ties to unelected Trump advisers who are trying to dismantle the VA, as well as his cozy deal to commute across the country at taxpayers’ expense.”

Perlmutter, Moskowitz and Sherman have denied seeking to dismantle the VA.

Last year, while working in the White House, Selnick negotiated with lawmakers on legislation to overhaul the VA’s programs for referring veterans to private doctors. Selnick pushed for the VA to establish rules, known as access standards, that would automatically make some veterans eligible for private care.

Selnick then took a leading role in formulating those access standards: He reported directly to WIlkie and sat on an “executive steering committee” in charge of implementing the new legislation, according to an organization chart obtained by ProPublica. But his name disappeared from the chart when the VA provided a version of it to Congress at a December hearing. Selnick has not participated in any briefings with lawmakers or veterans groups.

The access standards that the VA proposed last month are poised to dramatically expand the pool of veterans who could obtain private medical care at government expense. But the agency has offered few details on how many veterans it expects will shift to the private sector or how much that will cost. Key lawmakers from both parties