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Air Force Program Built on Earmarks

Clarification Appended

In 2006, the Air Force created a technology development program at a Florida air base with the understanding that it would cost no Air Force money to run. Instead, contractors who would be doing business with the new unit would lobby Congress for the earmarks to support its work.

As then-Maj. Gen. Donald Wurster wrote in an August 2006 memo outlining the project, “Providing a local lab focal point … leverages industry advocacy for congressional funding to effectively develop solutions.— An Air Force presentation from January 2007 emphasizes that all “core funding— for the project “will be from outside funds.— Wurster is now a lieutenant general and commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command.

The program was jointly conceived and promoted by contractors, lobbyists, military officials and some Congressional staff. At one key meeting at a Pennsylvania resort, a district staff member for Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) endorsed the program and said Murtha would help support it, according to minutes of that meeting obtained by Roll Call.

Defense lobbyists said it is not uncommon for the military to support earmark requests of contractors who are working on projects the Pentagon wants. Several lobbyists cite the Predator unmanned aircraft as an example of a program that was built by earmarks instead of by the military’s arcane procurement process, which can take years to complete.

But it is not Pentagon policy to support earmarks, and several lobbyists said it would be astounding to find military officials putting in writing any promise to support earmarks.

But it seems that the Air Force did just that with the Center for Battlefield Airman Tactical Targeting, or CBATT, which was intended to serve as the home for a series of research and development projects geared toward bringing new communications technologies to the battlefield.

The Air Force’s own documentation indicates that it was hoping to generate more than $40 million worth of earmarks to fund the program, but the project collapsed soon after it was launched when the lead contracting officer was accused of contracting to companies that he partly owned — and profiting from the transactions.

The officer, Mark O’Hair, has been indicted along with one of the contractors, Richard Schaller, though O’Hair has vigorously denied the allegations. In a February 2008 memo to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), O’Hair argued that he was being railroaded by his bosses who wanted control of the millions of dollars in earmarks that the project was going to generate. O’Hair described it as “a hostile campaign to prevent small companies that lobby Congress from receiving their advocacies.—

Schaller’s attorney, Bert Oram, said his client denies the charges and “requests assistance from anybody who may have information that might be helpful in obtaining evidence that would disprove the charges.—

Schaller and O’Hair were leading advocates of the new program, which would allow the military to more rapidly deploy communications systems that would allow for improved targeting and response on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to documents describing the venture.

The plan was also to include other federal agencies that might be able to use the same technologies — such as wildland firefighters, who could use lightweight communications equipment when they parachute into fire events.

Schaller and O’Hair are listed as the organizers — along with Rick Ianieri, then-CEO of a Pennsylvania-based contractor called Coherent Systems, which has received millions of dollars in earmarks from Murtha — of a September 2005 conference at the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort south of Pittsburgh, in Murtha’s Congressional district.

According to the minutes of that meeting, the group of about two dozen contractors, lobbyists and representatives from federal agencies discussed a range of applications for their various technologies and the importance of developing a unified strategy.

The minutes indicate that Mark Critz, a staff member from Murtha’s district office, “explained Congressman Murtha’s support for rallying government agencies to this issue— and said the group “can expect full support from Congressman Murtha.—

Murtha’s office said Critz’s role in the meeting was minor. Spokesman Matt Mazonkey told Roll Call: “A field representative from our office was invited by a company in our district to attend a meeting with over 20 business and federal agency attendees, including the Defense Department and the U.S. Forest Service. He attended the meeting, much like several meetings our office gets invited to every week, and listened to the PowerPoint presentation.—

Air Force memos indicate that the service received about $25 million in earmarks for CBATT-related projects in fiscal 2006 and was anticipating another $18.4 million in fiscal 2007. Congress did not institute its current public disclosure requirements until fiscal 2008, so there is no public record of which members requested these earmarks or what companies were the intended recipients.

Wurster’s August 2006 memo to the Air Force Materiel Command recommended the creation of a stand-alone branch to develop battlefield technologies and called it a “risk-free approach— to addressing the service’s technological deficiencies.

After considering Roll Call’s request for comment on the CBATT program for several days, an Air Force spokesman said the service would be unable to reply in time for this story because officials there were coordinating their answers with the Justice Department and other government agencies.

Appropriations lobbyists point out that most agencies charge a “tax— or management fee on earmarks of anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent, to cover the costs of overseeing the work of the contractor executing the earmark. That means the Air Force could have reaped more than $5 million in fees to manage the CBATT earmarks the lobbyists and contractors were securing.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has been investigating the agency practice of “skimming— money from earmarks, arguing in a 2008 statement that “unaccountable federal bureaucrats have skimmed millions of dollars for undisclosed purposes, sometimes without any authority.—

Ben Nelson’s office asked the Congressional Research Service to study “skimming— at various agencies.

Clarification: May 15, 2009

The article described Mark O’Hair as the “lead contracting officer— for an Air Force research and development program. O’Hair was actually the program manager, so while he reviewed contract proposals, recommended which ones should be awarded, and approved payments under the contracts, he did not have authority to sign the contracts.

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