After almost three years of temporary replacements, a permanent chief information officer (CIO) was finally appointed to the Department of Veterans Affairs in January. The Senate's confirmation of James Gfrerer formally ended the controversial tenure of Camilo Sandoval, a former Trump campaign staffer, as acting CIO. Gfrerer will now oversee the department's almost 10,000 information technology employees and an over $4 billion budget, as well as thousands of contractors and IT initiatives within the VA.
James Gfrerer is a former cybersecurity executive at Ernst & Young, which he joined after more than 20 years in the Marine Corps, where he served in a variety of roles, including a stint as the head of the Corps' Information Operations Center. According to the White House statement on his nomination, he also led counterterrorism and cybersecurity efforts at the Department of State.
Many congressmen and veteran's groups hope Gfrerer's appointment will bring much needed stability to the VA's top leadership as it tackles a host of issues within a department repeatedly described by lawmakers as "rudderless." In 2018 alone, an IT mistake left tens of thousands of veterans without housing allowances, and the start of a $16 billion electronic medical record overhaul was overshadowed by political infighting that resulted in the cecretary of the VA leaving under controversial circumstances.
Senator John Tester, a ranking member of the Senate committee for veteran's affairs, sent Gfrerer an open letter after the appointment extending his congratulations and reminding him, pointedly, that lawmakers are watching the VA's Office of Information and Technology with "severe, well-deserved, scrutiny."
Much of the concern about Gfrerer's role as CIO stems from the man he replaced, Camilo Sandoval, Donald Trump's secretive temporary appointment who oversaw IT chaos under his watch. The story of Sandoval is an illustrative example of how Trump has appointed political allies to leadership positions in the VA, at a crucial moment, leaving veterans to suffer the consequences of poor leadership and political infighting.
Despite rarely entering the public eye, Sandoval had been at the center of controversy since he took over as acting CIO of the VA in April of 2018. For a man who was in charge of data operations for both the 2016 Trump campaign and later the VA, Sandoval's background was surprisingly sparse on relevant experience for managing IT systems as big as the VA's, which operates on a $4 billion budget, and has 16,000 employees and contractors overseeing 834 applications, across over a million devices. After serving in the U.S. Air Force, Sandoval worked as an IT specialist for American Airlines for a year before moving into investment banking. Sandoval left a chief of staff position at American Express sometime in 2015 before hopping on board Trump's campaign, which a Federal Election Commission filing reveals he joined in June of 2016.
Sandoval was overseeing data operations and voter outreach initiatives for the campaign at the same time Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm in the middle of the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election, began working with the Trump campaign. According to multiple reports, Sandoval's data team was responsible for collecting voter data from a variety of sources, including the Trump campaign's mobile app. FEC filings show that, less than a month after Trump's campaign paid Cambridge Analytica $5.9 million, Sandoval's pay was almost doubled.
After the election, Sandoval was one of the "senior advisors" dispatched by the Trump White House to various government agencies. Many of these advisers quickly clashed with department heads, and Sandoval was no exception. Initially sent to the Department of the Treasury, he was, per multiple reports, unceremoniously dumped in a basement office by Steven Mnuchin. By May of 2017, at least one official at the Treasury believed Sandoval would be transferred to the Japanese embassy, and a flurry of Japanese-themed tweets from Sandoval's personal Twitter suggested a sudden interest in the country.
But instead of being sent to Japan, Sandoval was assigned as an adviser at the Veterans Health Administration.
In March of 2018, the Boston Globe reported that Sandoval began inquiring about other senior VA officials' loyalty to then-secretary David Shulkin claiming to be a White House representative to the Veterans Health Administration. Shulkin publicly accused Trump staffers of coordinating to remove him from office because he did not support privatization of the Department of Veterans Affairs—and, on March 28th, 2018, he joined the legion of Obama holdovers who were fired by tweet. Shulkin was quickly replaced by another controversial Trump appointee, Robert Wilkie. On April 17th, then acting CIO Scott Blackburn resigned without offering a reason and Sandoval quietly assumed the position.
Sandoval's appointment to acting CIO of the VA was so concerning that a group of lawmakers from both the House of Representatives and Senate signed a letter to the deputy secretary of the VA outlining their concerns, including those over Sandoval's role in the Trump campaign's coordination with Cambridge Analytica, and the fact that Sandoval was sued for sexual harassment by a fellow Trump campaign staffer while he served as Trump's data operations director.
VA Secretary Wilkie praised Sandoval's role at the VA when the latter first took the acting CIO position, crediting him with "extensive experience in financial technology and digital mobile payments." That experience was called into question, however, when veterans using the G.I. Bill and Vocational Rehabilitation programs noticed something wrong with their housing allowance payments last September. The problem stemmed from a recalculation of what amount veterans would receive for their monthly housing allowance after the Forever G.I. Bill was enacted in 2017.
By November more than 10,000 veterans had been waiting a month or more for their housing allowance—sometimes a veteran's sole source of income—to hit their bank accounts. Despite attempts by VA spokesperson Curtis Cashour to deflect responsibility for the problem onto an outgoing VA official, both Republicans and Democrats called for Sandoval to testify. He never complied, and problems with the housing payments continued into December.
Sandoval also found himself the subject of growing concern over the ballooning $16 billion electronic medical records overhaul project the VA announced in May of last year. Originally, the project was pitched as a 10-year, $10 billion project to digitize the VA's paper medical records through Cerner, a Missouri-based company that already had a contract to digitize the Department of Defense's (DOD) medical records. Proponents of the deal pointed to the benefit of having the DOD and the VA on the same system, enabling a seamless transfer of information when military service members transition to veteran status. But a ProPublica report last November suggests that the program faces serious implementation issues: The technology has already routed DOD orders incorrectly, and the version Cerner intends to deploy with the VA is designed to make medical reports easier to process for medical billing, rather than helping VA doctors share patient information and make better patient care decisions.
James Gfrerer has no prior connections to the Trump 2016 campaign himself, but, as he steps into his role as permanent CIO of the VA, questions remain about his predecessor's tenure. The VA has issued no statement as to what role Sandoval continues to play at the VA, nor his role in the housing-allowance problem or the $16 billion Cerner contract. The department declined to respond to requests for comment for this story—as did the VA's Office of Information and Technology.
Unlike Sandoval, Gfrerer appears to have no qualms appearing before Congress. At his September 5th, 2018, confirmation hearing, Gfrerer fielded questions from lawmakers about how he would manage the existing IT infrastructure at the VA while overseeing extensive modifications through the Cerner contract. Lawmakers also made pointed reference to the then unfolding G.I. Bill payment issue, and without referring to Sandoval by name, Gfrerer acknowledged that the mishandling of the payments last September was "a big deal."