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Senate Committee Fails to Question Defense Nominee’s Potential Conflicts of Interest

PEOTUS Donald Trump with retired Marine Corps General James Mattis. Photo courtesy of Senator Thom Tillis

This morning the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) held its confirmation hearing for Defense Secretary nominee General James Mattis (USMC, Ret.). While the hearing examined a number of issues to determine his fitness and judgment for the position, neither the hearing nor the pre-hearing policy questions examined public concerns about conflicts of interest that could arise as a consequence of Mattis’s trip through the revolving door.

The Project On Government Oversight brought its own concerns to the Committee’s attention in a letter this week. Specifically, we raised concerns that his agreements with the Office of Government Ethics were not sufficient to address potential conflicts of interests with companies he was financially tied to, including controversial blood-testing company Theranos and major defense contractor General Dynamics. We urged the Committee to require him to recuse himself from decisions regarding both of these companies for two years, and to gain more specific information about his activities with both companies to see if specific programmatic recusals would be necessary to ensure there would not be any conflict.

“The American people deserve public servants with undivided interests and who will act in the best interests of the United States,” POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian wrote. “Given the urgent need for reform at the Pentagon, and the significant conflicts General Mattis could face, we hope the Committee will make every effort to prevent actual or perceived improper influence at the Department.”

General Dynamics was the fourth largest contractor for the Department of Defense in Fiscal Year 2015. As is typical of Office of Government Ethics agreements, General Mattis only has to step down from the board and divest his company stock after he is confirmed. The Committee did not ask any questions about his activities for the company, but several Senators asked him if he supported the company’s $126 billion Columbia class nuclear missile submarine program.

The Committee has previously performed more vigorous ethics oversight, most notably for then-Deputy Secretary of Defense nominee William Lynn. Lynn, previously a lobbyist for major defense contractor Raytheon, was required by then-committee Ranking Member Senator John McCain (R-AZ) to recuse himself and not seek a waiver from participating in six major weapons programs he had lobbied for on behalf of the company.

POGO does not oppose the nomination of General Mattis, but we did think the Committee needed to do more due diligence to ensure that if confirmed he would act solely in the best interest of the nation, not of any companies he had previously represented. Specifically we had hoped the Committee would explore:

  • General Mattis’s role in the contracts between General Dynamics and the Department of Defense and any policy changes advocated by the company;
  • The propriety of him involving himself so directly in the procurement process on behalf of Theranos. Due to Mattis’s substantial personal involvement, CENTCOM medical staff at the time reportedly felt “caught in the middle of something that feels quite political”;
  • Why he chose to join the board of Theranos after his counsel advised him not to represent the company before the Department of Defense and the Department of the Navy;
  • His understanding of how federal conflict-of-interest laws apply to the operations of the Department of Defense.

The Senate still has the opportunity to investigate and gain more information about General Mattis’s post-military career. Unfortunately they appear unlikely to do so.