House panel launches probe of outside influence on VA

Allegations of the shadowy influence of three Mar-a-Lago cronies of President Trump on the inner workings of the Department of Veterans Affairs has prompted a congressional probe.

Mar-a-Lago (Katherine Welles/Shutterstock.com)

The Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida (photo by Katherine Welles/Shutterstock.com)

The House Veterans Affairs Committee is investigating allegations of improper influence of three members of President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club on the inner workings of the Department of Veterans Affairs -- including the $10 billion acquisition of the Cerner electronic health record system.

Reporting by Politico and Pro Publica going back almost a year identified Marvel Entertainment CEO Ike Perlmutter, physician Dr. Bruce Moskowitz and attorney Marc Sherman as having influence on plans by the VA to acquire a replacement for its Vista homegrown electronic health record system.

Documents produced under the Freedom of Information Act show that the three had frequent email correspondence and visits with VA executives, including former Secretary David Shulkin, former acting Secretary Peter O'Rourke and current chief Robert Wilkie. The three Mar-a-Lago club members also signed non-disclosure agreements with VA to review sensitive acquisition documents on the planned contract with Cerner.

Committee Chairman Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.) is now requesting from Wilkie information on "alleged improper influence" by the three men. Takano is seeking unredacted correspondence as well as any text messages from governmental and non-governmental accounts, telephone logs and other communications between the Mar-a-Lago group and senior officials at VA.

Takano's letter promises to let "Congress, veterans and the American people … better understand the scope and nature of this relationship between the Department and these individuals who have not served in the U.S. military nor U.S. government, and are not accountable to veterans and the American people."

The letter points to two areas of potential conflict of interest: Moskowitz urged Shulkin to explore a portable health records partnership with Apple, Inc. while also exerting his influence to get VA to host a medical device registry summit -- an event in which Moskowitz's family and foundation "played a prominent role."

"VA has been transparent on its communications with these three individuals, and has responded to multiple FOIA requests and shared with Congress responses to those requests," said VA spokesman Curt Cashour in an email to FCW. "Although his predecessors may have done things differently, Sec. Wilkie has been clear about how he does business. No one from outside the administration dictates VA policies or decisions -- that's up to Sec. Wilkie and President Trump. Period."

Cashour did not say whether VA intends to supply the committee with the unredacted records Takano and the committee are seeking.

It's not clear that the participation of the group had a negative effect on the outcome of the Cerner deal. According to one former senior VA official, Moskowitz offered good user feedback on the Cerner system as a physician and provided valuable access to health care subject matter experts.

"MITRE did a solid job because it used industry experts," the former official told FCW. "Then other industry experts helped us refine. It was actually a very solid process and led to a much stronger contract."

The influence of Moskowitz and the Mar-a-Lago group was felt in other ways -- most significantly in the delay in signing the final contract which did not take place until May 2018. At the time, the delays were officially attributed to the need to incorporate recommendations from MITRE's review of the contract. However the timeline provided by the VA documents indicates that recommendations in a subsequent review by a team convened by Moskowitz was also a factor in the delay.

The signing of the contract took place almost a year after Shulkin announced the sole-source deal with Cerner -- and after Shulkin resigned or was pushed out of his post as VA chief. One sidelight of Takano's probe will examine the extent to which any VA officials were pushing for Shulkin's ouster from the inside.

Takano's probe into the influence of the Mar-a-Lago group is not the only such investigation. At a Feb. 5 hearing of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) indicated that the Government Accountability Office was studying the issue.

"This concern that there are three private individuals who meet at a private club, who have improper influence over the operation of the Veterans Administration, is a first order scandal, if it's true. And we want to get to the bottom of that particular question," Schatz said.

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