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Gus Bilirakis and Chris Hunter diverge on Mar-a-Lago influence on VA

Congressman Gus Bilirakis met with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie Aug. 10 but did not inquire about a ProPublica investigation detailing allegations of private influence. Democratic challenger Chris Hunter formally requested an IG investigation Thursday.

As vice chair of the House Committee on Veterans Affairs, Congressman Gus Bilirakis met on Aug. 10 in Tampa with VA Secretary Robert Wilkie "on a variety of policy issues," Bilirakis confirmed.

But one topic Bilirakis, a Palm Harbor Republican, said he did not bring up: a sweeping ProPublica investigation published three days earlier that detailed how three members of Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump's private club in Palm Beach, are issuing orders to VA staff and shaping federal policy in secret.

Bilirakis declined an interview request Thursday, instead providing a statement that he "found the Secretary to be passionate, credible and fully in command of his agency" in their meeting that covered expanding the VA clinic in West Pasco and the claims and appeals process.

Bilirakis spokeswoman Summer Robertson added she has not seen "any evidence to substantiate" the ProPublica investigation.

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But along with its investigation, ProPublica published dozens of emails and other documents used in reporting the influence of the three Mar-a-Lago members: West Palm Beach doctor Bruce Moskowitz, Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter and Washington lawyer Marc Sherman. None of the three are government officials or veterans but influenced VA decisions like negotiating a contract for electronic health records and outsourcing medical services to private providers, according to ProPublica's reporting.

On Thursday, Democratic candidate for District 12 Chris Hunter formally requested the VA Office of Inspector General investigate the allegations and "take immediate remedial action based on the findings of the investigation."

"Mar-a-Lago millionaires playing politics with the VA not only presents risk of corruption, it presents risk of program failure and harm to the veterans and families the VA is duty-bound to serve," Hunter wrote to Inspector General Michael J. Missal.

Hunter, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent, quit his job with the Department of Justice in Tampa in December to run for Congress. While with the DOJ, Hunter worked on a task force that investigated fraud in the Tricare health care program for military families.

"Complicity is when a member whose job it is to oversee the VA looks the other way when allegations of corruption are presented that implicate the president's Mar-a-Lago millionaire buddies," Hunter told the Tampa Bay Times.

Hunter will face Lutz criminal defense attorney Robert Tager and Tarpon Springs tax consultant Stephen Perenich in the Aug. 28 Democratic primary.

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Hunter has raised $465,627 and has $254,185 in cash on hand as of Aug. 8, according to federal filings. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has added District 12 to its list of Republican House seats across the nation with potential to flip blue in part because of Hunter's candidacy.

Tager and Perenich have each raised less than $60,000, according to the most recent available filings.

Bilirakis is running for a seventh term in the seat his father, Michael Bilirakis, held for 24 years before him. The district covers north Pinellas, all of Pasco and a sliver of northwest Hillsborough counties.