Washington, DC, Aug. 21, 2019 – Today, Democracy Forward and American Oversight sued Veterans Affairs Secretary Robert Wilkie for failing to recover and preserve emails his predecessor, David Shulkin, sent from a personal account used to conduct government business with outside advisors. Shulkin specifically created this private email account to shield his discussions of VA business with the “Mar-a-Lago Crowd”— three individuals tied to President Donald Trump’s private Florida club who have advised the VA in violation of federal law as the suit alleges.
The Federal Records Act requires the preservation of all agency records, and failure to do so violates the law. In April and May, respectively, Democracy Forward and American Oversight issued letters to Secretary Wilkie putting him on notice of these violations and demanding that he take action to comply with the law. Today’s filing comes after Secretary Wilkie failed to act.
“The Trump administration can’t hide how deep the Mar-a-Lago Crowd’s influence ran at the top levels of the VA by ignoring the law,” said Democracy Forward Executive Director Anne Harkavy. “Business done in the name of the American people is government business, and has to be preserved by the government, even if it’s conducted through private email.”
“Members of the Trump administration have routinely used private email and backchannels to conceal their work from scrutiny,” said Executive Director of American Oversight, Austin Evers. “The VA has an obligation to recover Secretary Shulkin’s emails to determine what he tried to keep out of the public eye.”
Reporting has revealed that Secretary Shulkin told members of the Mar-a-Lago Crowd that he had “set up a new email address just for our secure communications on issues in the future,” and that the three men communicated with Secretary Shulkin through this private email account.
This news builds on existing concerns regarding the Mar-a-Lago Crowd’s improper influence at the VA, which has included advising VA officials on, among other things, Department personnel and staffing issues; the Department’s multi-billion dollar, no-bid health records digitization contract with the Cerner Corporation; and the privatization of certain essential health services currently provided to veterans directly by the VA.
Democracy Forward, along with VoteVets, is also suing the Trump administration for its unlawful reliance on the Crowd.
American Oversight is a non-partisan, nonprofit ethics watchdog and is the top Freedom of Information Act litigator investigating the Trump administration. Since our launch in March 2017, we have filed more than 100 public records lawsuits, uncovering and publishing tens of thousands of documents including senior officials’ calendars, emails, and expense records. Relying on FOIA and other public records laws, we file requests to uncover misconduct that otherwise would not see daylight, and then we harness the independent power of the courts to force the administration to obey the law.
Democracy Forward is a nonprofit legal organization that scrutinizes Executive Branch activity across policy areas, represents clients in litigation to challenge unlawful actions, and educates the public when the White House or federal agencies break the law.