Oversight

GAO probes influence of 'Mar-a-Lago crowd' on VA

VA headquarters in Wash., DC 

Three members of President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club exercised outsized influence on technology and personnel matters at the Department of Veterans Affairs from almost the start of the Trump administration through at least mid-2018, taking a special interest in the $16 billion electronic health record modernization project, the development of mobile applications and senior-level hiring.

Now a Government Accountability Office report publicly released June 3 attempts to round up and describe the nature of the influence of Florida physician Bruce Moskowitz, Marvel Entertainment Chairman Isaac Perlmutter and financial consultant Marc Sherman – dubbed the "Mar-a-Lago crowd" in press reports in Politico and ProPublica that first reported on the trio's high-level access to senior VA officials and their efforts to shape VA policy.

A former VA official told GAO that the three established a "shadow reporting structure" in which, according to the report, "they were stakeholders without a formal role."

The GAO report, conducted at the behest of Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), examines emails obtained by ProPublica journalists and others under the Freedom of Information Act and uses other documentation to set out timelines for the efforts of what it calls "three private citizens" to shape VA policy.

"VA should be led by those who understand veterans' concerns and have their best interests at heart," Schatz said in a statement. The report, he said, "confirms that three of Trump's friends, who have no experience in government let alone with veterans' matters, were secretly shaping the VA's policies without any transparency or oversight. Being a member of the president's club does not qualify you to influence decisions that affect the millions who served in uniform."

On the technology front, the report states that the three may have contributed to VA's decision to put negotiations for health records modernization with Cerner on a "strategic pause" while issues of interoperability were subject to a study by MITRE. The pause drew ire on Capitol Hill when it was announced in January 2018 because of worries that it would slow down the project's deployment schedule.  That pause took place months before early reporting on the influence of the Mar-a-Lago group on VA policy.

The Cerner contract was finally signed in May 2018 by then acting Secretary Robert Wilkie, a little over a month after David Shulkin was forced out of the top VA job. One day after the contract was announced, Wilkie was nominated to serve as VA secretary and stepped aside from the acting role so the confirmation process could take place and Peter O’Rourke was named acting secretary.

VA officials told GAO they asked the Office of General Counsel and the Ethics Specialty Team for guidance about interactions with Moskowitz, Perlmutter and Sherman. The GAO report includes many details about how VA obtains advice and guidance from stakeholders and outside groups, but it does not directly characterize the efforts of the three as falling outside the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

In September 2019, a federal district court dismissed a lawsuit brought by the group VoteVets alleging that the three were operating outside that law. That lawsuit is on appeal.

GAO tried unsuccessfully to interview Poonam Alaigh, former acting undersecretary for health at VA, former acting CIO Rob Thomas and ousted former secretary Shulkin, who referred GAO to relevant passages in his recent memoir, "It Shouldn't Be This Hard to Serve Your Country."

VA did not comment on the report to GAO.

"This report vindicates the department and completely undermines the sensational way many media outlets covered this story," VA press secretary Christina Noel said in an emailed statement.

Moskowitz, Perlmutter and Sherman supplied responses to questions through attorneys and allowed GAO personnel to review documents including private emails and meeting notes at an office. A GAO spokesman told FCW that the written responses from the three were marked as confidential and thus were not included in the report and can't be shared with the public.

This story was updated June 4 to include comment from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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