Report: Private Trump Advisers Tried to Derail the VA’s Multibillion-Dollar IT Overhaul

David Shulkin, then-Veterans Affairs Secretary, announces the department will adopt a commercial electronic health records product at the White House June 5, 2017.

David Shulkin, then-Veterans Affairs Secretary, announces the department will adopt a commercial electronic health records product at the White House June 5, 2017. Andrew Harnik/AP

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A ProPublica investigation found three advisers weighed in heavily on the hiring and firing of high-level tech leaders within the agency.

A private group of Trump administration advisers is playing an outsized role in shaping IT policy decisions at the Veterans Affairs Department, including the agency’s high-stakes electronic health record overhaul, according to a recent report.

In an investigation published Tuesday, ProPublica revealed the three-man cabal tried to derail the VA’s $10 billion deal with Cerner Corp. to modernize the agency’s outdated electronic health records platform based on a personal disdain for the company’s software.

Comprised of Marvel Entertainment Chairman Ike Perlmutter, Florida doctor Bruce Moskowitz and lawyer Marc Sherman, the so-called “Mar-a-Lago Crowd” also weighed in heavily on the hiring and firing of high-level tech leaders within the agency, according to the report.

In response to the story, VA Press Secretary Curtis Cashour told Nextgov, “We appreciate hearing from experts both inside and outside VA as we look for better ways to serve our nation's heroes. This broad range of input … has helped us immensely over the last year and a half, a period that hands-down has been VA's most productive in decades.”

The ProPublica investigation focused broadly on the tight grip the three advisers, none of whom ever served in the military or government, held on VA. The report detailed incidents of nepotism, policy interventions and agency leaders traveling to the president’s Florida golf club to “kiss the ring,” in the words of one former administration official.

The report alleges the Mar-a-Lago Crowd also had a significant influence on the agency’s tech decisions.

Former VA Secretary David Shulkin repeatedly butted heads with the group as he worked to get the Cerner deal over the finish line. Moskowitz didn’t like a different Cerner software he’d used in his work and urged Shulkin to obstruct the contract with further vetting. Three former officials told ProPublica Shulkin’s stance on the Cerner project was the final straw that led to his firing in March.

The group also worked to replace the agency’s then-acting Chief Information Officer Scott Blackburn with Camilo Sandoval, a former White House senior adviser who kept Perlmutter abreast of the agency’s internal operations. Sandoval assumed the VA’s top tech position in April, despite sexual harassment allegations and clashes with former colleagues at the Treasury Department, according to Politico.

As acting CIO, Sandoval oversees the IT overhaul with Cerner. President Trump last week nominated Marine veteran James Gfrerer to become the VA’s permanent CIO, but he is still awaiting Senate confirmation.

House lawmakers created a new subcommittee to oversee the implementation of Cerner’s platform, and VA also stood up a special office to direct the project.

House Veterans Affairs Committee Ranking Member Tim Walz, D-Minn., on Wednesday sent a letter to VA Secretary Robert Wilkie requesting all communications between agency officials and the Mar-a-Lago Crowd.

“This situation reeks of corruption and cronyism,” Walz said in a statement. “If these revelations prove true … then that would amount to an unprecedented, disturbing and profoundly unacceptable betrayal of our nation’s veterans.”