Unfortunately it appears that another Trump administration national security nominee is a textbook example of the revolving door. Heather Wilson, recently nominated for Air Force Secretary, was formerly a Representative from New Mexico. After leaving the House she spent two years doing contract work for four nuclear facilities, including two New Mexico-based labs, without recording a single deliverable. She was also allegedly involved in an illegal lobbying effort by the Lockheed Martin Corporation.
The Air Force has direct involvement with two legs of the nuclear triad, which refers to the three ways the United States is able to fire nuclear weapons. The bombs delivered by aircraft and the ground based missiles kept in silos around the northwest are both managed by the Air Force, so the agency will be directly involved in a $1 trillion nuclear modernization plan over the next 30 years—a plan that will also significantly affect the work and funding for the labs Wilson previously worked for. Many have questioned this nuclear modernization plan and how much, if any, of it is necessary. With President Trump’s commitment to “drain the swamp,” Senators should closely examine Wilson’s past work with the nuclear labs, and whether she would recuse herself from decisions involving her former clients to prevent a conflict of interest.
Wilson left the House in 2009 and a mere one day later signed a contract with Sandia National Laboratories, a New Mexico-based lab that works on maintaining the US nuclear arsenal. While federal law prohibits Members of Congress from lobbying for one year, it does not include the myriad other ways former Members of Congress can use their experience and contacts to benefit industry. Though the lab is federally owned and taxpayer funded, it is managed and operated by a private contractor called the Sandia Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiarity of Lockheed Martin.
Wilson went on to establish contracts with three other nuclear facilities: Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge), and Nevada National Security Site (Nevada). These contracts totaled $450,000 between 2009 and 2011. However, a 2013 investigation into the administration and management of the consulting agreement, conducted by the Department of Energy Inspector General (DOE IG) at NNSA’s request, could find no documentation of the services she provided.
The contractors in charge of the four nuclear facilities ultimately repaid the almost half a million taxpayer dollars spent on Wilson’s alleged consulting services, but Wilson’s company, of which she was the sole employee, kept all of the funds she received for doing who knows what.
The DOE IG’s review of Sandia’s 2009-2011 documentation also ended up unearthing the lab's strategy to lobby government officials for a contract worth $2.4 billion per year. The catch? Sandia Corporation used taxpayer dollars to do so, which is not only morally reprehensible, it’s illegal. The federal employees who oversee Sandia Corporation alleged that Wilson was contracted to work on this exact issue, though the DOE IG was not able to confirm if or how she was involved. The DOE IG’s report simply stated: “Sandia Field Office alleged that SNL impermissibly attempted to influence an extension to the Sandia Corporation contract and engaged Ms. Wilson in these activities.” The Senate Armed Services Committee should clarify Wilson’s involvement, if any, in the Sandia Corporation’s illegal lobbying strategy.
While the DOE IG was investigating Wilson’s contracting documentation, or lack thereof, Wilson herself was appointed to an advisory panel to review the effectiveness of the National Energy Laboratories, which includes two of the labs Wilson previously worked for. POGO raised concerns about her appointment at the time, given the obvious conflict of interest.
Unsurprisingly, the review found that the main problem facing the labs was excessive government oversight. Which would be funny if it weren’t so sad.
Wilson’s past involvement with the nuclear labs is not necessarily disqualifying for the position of Air Force Secretary, but the Office of Government Ethics and the Senate should ensure that her ties to the nuclear labs will not improperly influence her decision-making.