Holding the Government Accountable

Air Force Secretary Nominee Grilled On Nuclear Contracts

Air Force Secretary Nominee Heather Wilson during her confirmation hearing by the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 30, 2017.

Last week the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing to consider President Trump’s nominee for Air Force Secretary, Heather Wilson. The Project On Government Oversight (POGO) was pleased to see the Senators make ethics a central focus of the hearing and address some of the concerns we raised in a letter to the Committee earlier this week. Wilson’s answers left much to be desired.

POGO applauds the bipartisan effort to get to the bottom of what exactly Wilson did for the labs. Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Jack Reed (D-RI), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Committee, led the questioning by asking Wilson about her previous contracts with four national nuclear laboratories.

A Department of Energy Inspector General investigation had found that the contractors managing the labs paid Wilson's company $450,000 even though they did not receive any evidence that work had been completed. Although the contractors in charge of the nuclear the labs in question have since repaid the nearly half a million dollars spent on Ms. Wilson’s alleged consulting services, Ms. Wilson’s company, of which she is the sole employee, has kept the money she received.

One of the facilities in question was the Sandia National Laboratory, which is managed by the Lockheed Martin Corporation. If confirmed as Air Force Secretary, Wilson will oversee billions of dollars of contract work done by Lockheed Martin. POGO and others have noted that Wilson’s past relationship with the contractor gives the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Senator McCain began by asking Wilson to describe exactly what she was doing for each laboratory and to assure the Committee and the public that her previous work with Sandia National Lab would not result in a conflict.

Senator Reed pushed Wilson on why she did not provide documentation to support her work as required by federal regulations. He asked if Wilson was aware of such requirements. She responded by saying she did the work required by the contract and in her role as Air Force Secretary she “would expect the people managing the contract to manage it well.”

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) also attempted to address concerns with Wilson’s lab work and submitted one of Wilson’s contract invoices to the record, calling it a “blank slate.” He asked Wilson if she believes better contract management is necessary and, if confirmed, will she hold contractors to a higher standard than what was indicated by the documentation she provided.

Wilson responded by saying she complied with her contracts with the labs and gave her best work but she did not state that she would seek better contract management or hold Air Force contractors to a higher standard. This is troubling given just how unusual Wilson’s lack of reporting on her activities was. While it’s true that the labs were at fault for not enforcing the rules, it’s reasonable to expect that she would seek to do better once in a management position herself.

Senator Blumenthal asked, “Did it occur to you that maybe the United States of America deserved a fuller accounting of your services than this blank slate?” Wilson responded by saying, “Senator, the United States deserved my best work and that's what they got.”

Wilson’s work with the labs was not the only ethical concern addressed in her confirmation hearing. Senator Reed also questioned allegations from Wilson’s time in the House of Representatives. In 2006, while Wilson was in the House, she contacted a U.S. Attorney working on federal corruption cases in her home state of New Mexico, which may have placed undue pressure on the prosecuting attorney. The House Ethics Committee declined to investigate the matter but the call became part of a 2008 Department of Justice Inspector General investigation into the removal of nine U.S. Attorneys and whether their firing was politically motivated. Wilson stated that a source informed her the New Mexico Attorney was intentionally delaying prosecuting the corruption cases. However, former White House aide Karl Rove alleged that Wilson asked him to fire the Attorney because he moved too slowly on a case against a Democrat. When Reed asked Wilson to clarify whether her source was someone with a pending matter before the prosecutor she declined to disclose her source.

Due to ethical concerns and Wilson’s lack of commitment to strong contractor oversight, POGO does not believe Wilson should be confirmed.