President Trump’s Air Force Secretary nominee, Heather Wilson, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 30 that she had consulted honorably for four U.S. nuclear weapons laboratories years ago, even though she never produced a detailed written accounting of how she had spent her time while earning $20,000 a month.
Wilson, a former Air Force pilot and House lawmaker who now runs the South Dakota School of Mines, was questioned closely about her work for the laboratories and her billing practices by two Democratic Senators on the committee, following the Center for Public Integrity’s disclosure that she had frustrated laboratory accountants by refusing to detail what she had done.
Wilson, who had just left Congress in 2009, said she was working for the labs’ directors, that she had complied with the terms of her contracts, and that they were satisfied she had done a good job, suggesting that should be the end of the story.
But the questions arose because the Energy Department and the Justice Department in 2013 and 2014 concluded that the labs had improperly billed the government for her work, and forced them to return the federal funds they had been paid as a result. One laboratory, run by the Sandia Corporation, paid $4.7 million to settle a complaint that Wilson’s work was aimed at helping the labs win new federal contracts, a task that is not supposed to be paid for by federal dollars.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a former attorney general in his home state, asked a series of pointed questions about how Wilson’s approach might work at the Air Force, which spends more than $167 billion a year, much of it on contractors that bill the government for their labors.
Waving a copy of a bill she sent to one of the labs, which listed only the dollar amount she expected to be paid, the senator said “there is no way of knowing from this invoice what you did.”
“I’m asking you as a potential secretary of the Air Force whether you will hold contractors to a higher standard than is indicated by this document,” Blumenthal said. “Isn’t this a bad example — leadership is by example, the best leadership is by good example — of how billing and invoice submission should be conducted?” He also entered into the hearing’s written record invoices showing two occasions when Wilson had billed two separate nuclear weapon contractors for attending a single meeting.
Wilson replied, “Sir, the United States of America deserved my best work, and that’s what they got.” In government work, “we should expect contractors to comply with the contracts which they signed. In this case, I did.”
Drafts of Wilson’s contracts contained a standard clause requiring that she detail her tasks and accomplishments, but the clause was removed from the copy she signed, according to internal reports by investigators at the Energy Department’s Office of Inspector General.
The irregular arrangement, which contradicted federal acquisition guidelines for subcontractors, made contractor officials and Energy Department personnel uneasy, according to internal government documents obtained by the Center under the Freedom of Information Act. One of the contract officers said it was the only contract with such provisions that had ever crossed his desk.
When Wilson was asked by the committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island — a former Army captain, private attorney, and state lawmaker — whether she intentionally negotiated contract language with the weapon firms that exempted her from federal acquisition guidelines, Wilson said, “I don’t recall.” But she said she did recall discussing with their senior executives what she would be doing for the labs.
Part of Wilson’s work for Sandia, she said, was to help it navigate the Washington contracting thicket. “I was always available to them to answer the [lab] vice president and the president’s questions regarding the United States Congress and the federal bureaucracy,” Wilson said.
Wilson added that Sandia’s director had liked her consulting work enough to offer her a position as one of its vice presidents. She also said that if auditors at the Energy Department’s inspector general’s office had wanted to know more about exactly what she did, they could have asked her directly during their probe. But they never did, she said.
Asked for comment, the inspector general’s spokesperson Felicia Jones said in a written statement that her office’s probe “involved allegations of misconduct by Sandia Corporation,” and that “It was Sandia’s responsibility to ensure only allowable and properly supported costs were charged to the Department of Energy. Consequently there was no need for the OIG to contact Ms. Wilson.”
Wilson also acknowledged during the hearing that as part of her consulting work, she had indeed told Sandia executives — who were seeking to extend their contract with the government — that “your message to these people [at the Department of Energy] is that competition is not in the best interest of the government.”
Asked by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the committee chairman, if she believes competition for contracts isn’t always in the government’s best interest, Wilson gave an answer that will cheer many existing Air Force contractors. On a select basis, she said, longstanding relationships between the government and its contractors on particular projects are better off if they are not disrupted by competitions.
Wilson said she would exercise that philosophy, in her future role, “when it’s in the best interest of the government.”
Wilson’s perspective clashes with the findings of a 345-page Government Accountability Office study published in March 2011. “The benefits of competition in acquiring goods and services from the private sector are well established…” the GAO report said. “Competitive contracts can save money, improve contractor performance and promote accountability for results.”
Sandia and the other three labs that employed her — Los Alamos, the Nevada National Security Site and Oak Ridge National Laboratory — play a pivotal role in producing the nuclear weapons that the Air Force puts atop its ballistic missiles and inside its bombers. As such, if confirmed, Wilson will be responsible for helping to pay for and to oversee some of the work that the laboratories, her former clients, undertake.
In all, five Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed support for Wilson’s nomination during her hearing. Nine more Republicans on the committee and all 13 Democrats have yet to say whether they support sending Wilson’s nomination to the full Senate with a favorable recommendation.
During the hearing, Republicans and Democrats alike on the committee implored her to follow through with Air Force commitments that would sustain economic drivers in their states or consider their states for fresh Air Force roles, such as bases for the new F-35 aircraft under contract with Lockheed Martin, which owns the Sandia Corp. Those moments made it clear that if confirmed, Wilson would have a hand in choosing winners and losers.
After the hearing ended, Wilson stopped briefly to talk with reporters on the way out. But when questions turned to her work for the labs and the investigations they’d spawned, she walked away.
The committee’s vote is expected next week.
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