Lawmakers interrogate US Air Force secretary nominee over ethics concerns By: Valerie Insinna and Joe Gould, March 30, 2017
(Photo Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON During a Thursday confirmation hearing, U.S. President Donald Trump's Air Force secretary nominee came under fire about her work for government nuclear labs, including allegations that she had lobbied illegally and received pay with no record of work.
Heather Wilson, a former Republican congresswoman who is currently the president at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, denied all assertions that she had broken ethics rules, although she largely evaded queries on why she had not retained a record of her work at Sandia National Laboratories, Los Alamos National Laboratory, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Nevada National Security Site.
The Senate Armed Services Committee' two top officials- committee chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., and ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I.- grilled Wilson at the onset of the hearing, at times aggressively questioning her about her former employment. However, members generally voiced support for her nomination, signaling that she will ultimately be confirmed.
Throughout the hearing, Wilson maintained that she was not disciplined or cited for a breach of ethics nor was she investigated or charged as a result of her consulting work.
One line of questioning involved an investigation by the Energy Department's inspector general, which found that Wilson's consulting business raked in almost half a million dollars from 2009 to 2013, despite no evidence of completed work. The private firms in charge of the labs reimbursed the government for most of that sum, but Wilson was able to keep her pay.
Asked by Reed whether she had kept records of her work at the laboratories, Wilson responded that she spent at least 50 hours a week engaged with the facilities and contributed a "substantial" product, including reviewing programs and strategic planning.
"I did the work, I complied with the contract. The review found no fault with me, and the DOE auditors never even talked to me," she said.
"Do you have records showing that you were spending 50 hours a month doing that?" Reed asked.
"Senator, if the DOE auditors had bothered to talk to me, I would have been able to help them with that when this matter occurred seven years ago," she said.
Reed asked whether the records were no longer in her possession, but Wilson pivoted.
"Senator, I complied with the contract and provided the work that Sandia National Laboratories and the other laboratories asked of me."
Later in the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., described one of Wilson's invoices during her time working for one of the labs. The document, he said, was completely blank except for a sum of money billed for "consulting services."
US Air Force secretary nominee discloses financial details Asked whether she would demand better oversight of such invoices if confirmed as Air Force secretary, Wilson repeated that she had followed the terms of her contract.
Asked by Blumenthal whether U.S. taxpayers deserved a more thorough accounting of contractor work, she responded: "They deserved my best work, and that's what they got."
The former congresswoman also faced questions about her work with Sandia Corp., a Lockheed Martin subsidiary that operates the federally owned Sandia National Laboratories. Wilson worked for Sandia after leaving Congress in 2009, where- according to reporting by the Center for Public Integrity- she helped create a strategy that influenced the federal government to continue sole-sourcing contracts to the company. Lockheed in 2015 paid $4.7 million to settle allegations that Sandia had violated lobbying laws.
In response to questions from McCain, Wilson said that she had not contacted federal employees or members of Congress about extending Sandia's contract, but she did acknowledge that she influenced the company to take the position that competing the contract was not in the best interest of the government.
"Because it was not," she explained. "It is my view that the national laboratories are special assets. They are government-owned assets, and we have a very tenure of stability in those national laboratories."
While the generally warm tone of the hearing suggested the SASC will confirm Wilson eventually, key critics of Wilson's past ethical issues told Defense News outside the hearing that they were undecided whether to vote for her. Both Reed and Blumenthal said they were dissatisfied with her answers and still wanted assurances she would hold contractors to a higher standard than she had observed.
"I think there are still some questions to be answered," Reed said. "The inability to produce any significant work product, even examples of it, is troubling. Then I think with respect to her contact with the federal attorney, it would help very much if she would indicate who prompted her to call. Was this a constituent with valuable information or did someone have another motivation?"
The vote was not held immediately after the hearing, and it was not immediately clear when the SASC will vote on her confirmation. In the interim, Wilson will have an opportunity to respond to questions from Reed and other SASC members, he said.
"I don't think she would accept as good practice an invoice from a contractor for $10,000 with no indication what was done," Reed said. "You lead by example."
Blumenthal, echoing his line of questioning in the hearing, said Wilson should have agreed to a fuller accounting for services to the federal government than what she had provided.
"I didn't ask her to admit to criminal wrongdoing or to any kind of impropriety, I wasn't saying she was somehow prosecutable, but that maybe they could have done a better job," Blumenthal said.
"There is an ethical issue for someone who is an experienced and knowledgable contractor, just as there would be for any service provider whose time is accounted for," Blumenthal said. "I'm not saying it decided my vote, but I was disappointed."