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Report finds White House stymied Jedi contract questions

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Via Financial Times

The Trump administration stymied investigators from asking questions about possible White House influence over a $10bn cloud computing contract, a watchdog report has found.

In a report on Wednesday, the Department of Defense’s inspector-general said witnesses were blocked from answering questions about interactions with White House officials because of an assertion of “presidential communications privilege”.

As a result, the report said the full extent of any contacts was not unclear, though the inspector-general concluded that DoD officials who ultimately awarded the controversial contract to Microsoft instead of Amazon were “not pressured” by their bosses in the department.

The cloud computing contract, known as Jedi, has been the centre of months of controversy, first about allegations that Amazon had an improper edge during the procurement process, and then about the DoD’s decision to award it to Microsoft following criticism by Donald Trump.

Mr Trump has frequently taken aim at Amazon and the company’s founder, Jeff Bezos, who owns The Washington Post. Amazon sued the DoD last year after it gave the contract to Microsoft, and won an injunction in February. Last month, DoD asked the court to allow it to review the contract award.

“We could not definitively determine the full extent or nature of interactions that administration officials had, or may have had, with senior DoD officials regarding the Jedi Cloud procurement,” the report said.

The report said the general counsel’s office at DoD instructed several witnesses not to answer questions about interactions with the White House.

Later, the White House said it would allow witnesses to answer written questions but insisted on reviewing those answers, according to the report. The DoD inspector-general declined to pursue this option after concluding it was not “appropriate” or “practical”. 

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Sean O’Donnell, who is also the inspector-general for the Environmental Protection Agency, currently serves as the acting DoD inspector-general after Mr Trump removed Glenn Fine from the post last week by demoting him.

Mr Fine had been selected by other inspectors-general to lead a special panel conducting oversight of coronavirus stimulus funds. His demotion at DoD removed him from that panel as well.

Despite the lack of information on White House contacts, the report on Wednesday found that DoD officials who awarded Microsoft the deal “were not pressured regarding their decision on the award of the contract by any DoD leaders more senior to them, who may have communicated with the White House”.

Lt Col Robert Carver, a Department of Defense spokesman, said the report “confirms that the Department of Defense conducted the Jedi Cloud procurement process fairly and in accordance with law”.

“The IG’s team found that there was no influence by the White House or DoD leadership on the career source selection boards who made the ultimate vendor selection,” he added.

Microsoft, Amazon and the White House did not immediately return a request for comment. 

The report strongly criticised one former DoD official who accepted a job with Amazon while working on the early stages of Jedi procurement.

It also criticised a DoD procurement official for participating in the Jedi award process despite disclosing ownership of up $50,000 in Microsoft stock.

The inspector-general concluded neither incident affected the outcome of the contract award

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