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Project on Government Oversight

Pentagon's Senior Mentors to File Public Financial Disclosure Reports

Related Content: Revolving Door
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October 14, 2010

The Defense Department (DoD) will now require any newly hired senior mentors who are paid more than $119,554 by the Department to file public financial disclosure reports, according to a Pentagon letter obtained by POGO. USA Today’s Tom Vanden Brook first broke the news last night. These mentors do everything from “help run war games to offer advice,” according to USA Today. This victory for transparency is an about face for the Pentagon, which previously argued these mentors only had to file confidential financial disclosure reports. If not for the efforts of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Ranking Member John McCain, R-Ariz., the Defense Department may not have changed course. POGO has obtained documents from Congress, the Defense Department, and the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) that help tell the tale. A revolving door of military insiders-turned-senior mentors, often with ties to defense contractors, may have created a backdoor means of influence for the defense industry. In its first story last November, USA Today was able to identify 158 senior members, 80 percent of whom had financial ties to defense contractors. But this compilation was incomplete since the Pentagon refused to provide a full list of the mentors at the time. While many of these mentors may be well-meaning, the relative obscurity of their arrangements with the Pentagon and private interests leads to many legitimate questions about the potential for improper influence and conflicts of interest. This move towards greater public disclosure is good for both the public and the Pentagon. The more the Defense Department and the mentors are open about their connections, the more the program will have credibility and integrity. It's also great that the public will have a better idea of who's really helping to shape Pentagon policy. And last but not least, the congressional oversight on this issue is a great example of bipartisanship. Some background: In July, DoD reworked the program, a process that included revising ethics rules to identify conflicts, and in August Deputy Secretary William Lynn announced that "in a step toward transparency" they would release the names and roles of the mentors. Lynn, however, still refused to make public the financial disclosures of the mentors, effectively masking the conflicts of interest they might have. Lynn made a curious argument in support of his view. According to Lynn (see page 7), OGE said what the senior mentors actually were paid did not matter in terms of deciding whether they should disclose publicly or confidentially. Instead, Lynn and the OGE argued it was “appropriate” to look at where their pay fell within a certain pay range, and the lowest pay in that range should be what’s used to determine if they should disclose publicly. Confusing? Yes. The USA Today editorial board and POGO took Lynn to task for this half-baked stance. Apparently, Senators Levin and McCain thought this didn’t make sense either and made clear their disagreement in a September 9, 2010, letter signed by both of them to Lynn. “We believe that DOD's senior mentors exercise a level of responsibility and influence equivalent to persons serving in positions currently covered by public financial disclosure requirements,” they wrote. “Accordingly, we ask that you review this issue and make an appropriate request of the Office of Government Ethics. If this issue is not adequately addressed by the DOD and OGE, we are prepared to propose appropriate legislation to ensure public financial disclosure by senior mentors and other DOD HQEs [Highly Qualified Experts] based on their actual rates of pay, rather than hypothetical salary levels.” About a month later, Lynn made it clear to the Senators that he got the message.

Founded in 1981, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) is a nonpartisan independent watchdog that champions good government reforms. POGO’s investigations into corruption, misconduct, and conflicts of interest achieve a more effective, accountable, open, and ethical federal government.

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