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Holding the Government Accountable

Hunter's Brand of Congressional "Oversight"

The two definitions of the word "oversight" have a neat symmetry. One means "an unintentional omission or mistake," whereas the other, is nearly its exact opposite: "Watchful care or management; supervision." Typically, the latter meaning of the word is meant when it appears in the phrase "congressional oversight." But not always, with the minor caveat that the "unintentional omission" may, at times, been intentional.

Since there seems to be burgeoning interest in the real estate holdings of staffers-turned-lobbyists (-turned-staffers-again, in some cases) and defense contractors in Jerry Lewis' orbit, we think it's worth revisiting a sub-rosa real estate relationship involving House Armed Service Committee chairman Duncan Hunter (R-CA).

Almost exactly a year ago, the Associated Press did a nice roundup of House leadership financial disclosure statements. Among the highlights for Hunter was his co-ownership of a rural Virginia cabin with "former Democratic U.S. Rep. Pete Geren of Texas."

At first glance, no big deal. Preston M. 'Pete' Geren III, however, is not your average former Congressman. A Blue Dog from the Texas 12th, Geren's 1989-1997 House stint is still less-than-fondly remembered by some for his relentless championing of that ineffective sinkhole of a project brought to us by Boeing and Bell, the V-22 Osprey.

More recently, Geren briefly served as Acting Secretary of the Air Force from July to November 2005, after Air Force Secretary James Roche resigned in the wake of the Boeing tanker lease scandal. In February 2006, Geren was confirmed as Undersecretary of the Army.

But Geren is no newcomer to the Pentagon. Between 2001-2005, Geren occupied an office "strategically next door" to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, whom he served as a special assistant responsible for "inter-agency initiatives, legislative affairs, and special projects." In written responses to questions posed by the Senate Armed Service Committee during his Army confirmation earlier this year, Geren noted that among his specific responsibilities as a Rumsfeld aide was acting as Pentagon liaison with Congress on detainee abuse issues that began with Abu Ghraib in 2004.

A less-charitable description of Geren's Abu Ghraib duties, according to a knowledgeable congressional source, was "keeping Congress off Rumsfeld's back". Indeed, much to the Pentagon's consternation, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John Warner's (R-VA) was actually moved to investigate Abu Ghraib and hold multiple hearings on the matter. Not so with Geren's real estate partner, the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. Consistently dismissive of interrogation and detention excesses as isolated incidents, Hunter actively discouraged Congressional investigation into Abu Ghraib.

Absent from national press coverage of Hunter's antipathy towards Abu Ghraib investigations, however, was the fact that Hunter's top corporate campaign contributor, San Diego-based defense contractor Titan Corporation, potentially had a lot to lose in the scandal. (Titan gave generously to Cunningham as well).

When Titan bought Virginia-based contractor RTG in 2001, it also acquired a $10 million, five-year contract awarded in 1999 to provide linguists to the US Army. In the wake of 9/11, Titan's linguist contract was given a ceiling of $657 million, with the company receiving $112.1 million from the contract in 2003—six percent of Titan's total revenue. A May 21, 2004 report by the San Diego Union-Tribune revealed Titan's contractor hiring and training practices to be systemically lacking, and that far from supplying "skilled contract linguists" as its contract stipulated, Titan was "hiring people who speak limited English and have no professional experience as interpreters and translators". Personnel from Titan were also singled out in both the Taguba, Fay and Kern reports as participants in abuses at Abu Ghraib. (Titan, along with Arlington, Virginia-based contractor CACI, is currently facing multiple lawsuits.)

As Abu Ghraib was unfolding, Titan was also losing money in legal bills as federal investigators were discovering Titan to be among the most ethically bankrupt US contractors doing business overseas. The matter of illicit campaign contributions-for-quadrupled management fees in the West African nation of Benin didn't sit well with the Justice Department; a host of document falsifications and under-reporting expenses didn't sit well with the Securities and Exchange Commission. (Lockheed Martin wasn't thrilled, either; poised to buy Titan, the company pulled out of the deal in 2004). On March 1, 2005, Titan pled guilty to three criminal counts of bribery, and paid a total of $28.5 million in fines to the Justice Department and SEC.

Despite the brazenness and scope of Titan's actions, as part of the federal government's settlement with the company, the Defense Department waived its right to disbar Titan from any contracts. Though the Titan contract should have been re-bid by now, according to transcripts of recent Titan shareholder conference calls, the company (now part of L3 Communications, which bought it last year) will retain the contract until at least next year.

As a general rule, we tend to think that those charged with oversight, and those overseen by Congress, shouldn't be in business together--and if they are, their respective disclosures should be clearer. Hunter's disclosures (pdf) make no mention of Geren's Defense Department affiliation, and Geren's disclosures simply refer to the "Hunter/Geren partnership"—to look at them, you'd have no idea that the "Hunter" chaired House Armed Services). Would public knowledge of the business relationship between the Pentagon's Congressional point man for Abu Ghraib and the House Armed Services Committee Chairman--and, as we noted earlier, champion of an exceptionally ethically-challenged defense contractor--given anyone pause in May 2004 (or any other time, for that matter)? Was Hunter's real estate partner in a position to help Hunter help any of his defense contractor patrons?

Whatever the case, Geren has done nicely for himself while in government service. As his on-average 28-page public financial disclosure reports reveal, though he resigned his position on several corporate boards when he took the Army job, in his four years as a Rumsfeld special assistant, Geren collected an approximate total of $200,000 a year as a director of Anadarko Petroleum, Texas-New Mexico Power Company, Cullen/Frost Bankers and RME Petroleum.