By AUSTIN WRIGHT
Hundreds of Defense Department officials requested ethics opinions from the government over the past two years as they retired from the military and sought jobs with private companies or organizations.
The ethics opinions are required for certain current and recently retired officials, including those involved in procurement decisions, before they’re allowed to take new jobs with defense companies.
The Defense Department released a database of the ethics opinions to the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which had sued the department to get it. CREW provided an early copy of the database exclusively to POLITICO.
It sheds new light on an ongoing arrangement in which defense companies dangle lucrative job opportunities in front of Pentagon officials who manage millions — sometimes billions — of dollars in government contracts.
As a result, many officials leave the department with specific landing spots in mind.
“The moral of the story is the revolving door is alive and well,” said CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan. “Top DoD officials understand the inner workings of the Pentagon — and particularly how the Pentagon makes contracting decisions.”
Hiring those officials is considered a “good investment,” she said.
From January 2012 to May 2013, 379 current or recently retired officials requested ethics opinions, which are mandated under a provision in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2008.
The provision applies to senior leaders in the Pentagon and across the military, along with any officials managing contracts worth more than $10 million, who expect to be on the payroll of a defense company within two years of leaving the Defense Department.
The purpose of the ethics opinions is to explain to outgoing Pentagon officials any restrictions that might apply to their new jobs in the private sector as a result of federal acquisition rules intended to prevent the use of insider information or connections to influence contracting decisions.
Of the 379 officials covered in the database, 84 percent listed specific companies or organizations they had in mind as their post-military landing spots, according to CREW’s analysis. The release of the database marks the first time such information has been made public.
“It’s worth noting that across the federal government enterprise, post-government employment rules generally do not prohibit working for any particular company,” said Lt. Col. J. Todd Breasseale, a Defense Department spokesman.
Officials who leave the department for the private sector, Breasseale noted, are banned from “representing a new employer to the government on particular matters, like a contract on which the former employee worked.”
But, he said, they’re not prohibited from “working for the company on other matters or” behind the scenes, which he defined as “without communication to federal officials.”
In the database, 13 outgoing or newly retired officials listed Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, as a prospective employer. Seven listed Boeing, eight listed General Dynamics, 10 listed Raytheon and 13 listed Northrop Grumman.
A few officials who requested ethics opinions were very specific about the jobs they had in mind. One listed “president of Skyway Acquisition Solutions.” The records released by the Pentagon had all the names redacted, but in this case it’s not hard to pinpoint the official.
Kevin Jans, a former contracting official with the Defense Department, founded Skyway and is the company’s president. And in a brief telephone interview, he indicated he had, in fact, requested an ethics opinion describing possible restrictions on his work in the private sector.
His company helps “middle-market firms navigate the increasingly complex process of competing for federal contracts,” according to a description on its website. “Kevin,” the website says, “built his company on the premise that no one knows the federal acquisition system better than those contracting officers and buyers who managed it from the inside.”
Another official requesting an ethics opinion listed as a potential landing spot, “vice president, General Dynamics Information Technology.” And a third listed, “vice president, DynCorp International.”
The information provided to POLITICO also includes heavily redacted copies of some of the ethics opinions.
In one, a government lawyer informs an official who had retired from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency that he or she “would be barred from having substantive conversations with government officials about most matters relating to the [redacted],” presumably a contract or program the official managed.
But, the opinion says, the official would be allowed to take an industry job managing private-sector employees who work directly with the intelligence agency on the contract or program in question.
In the event there’s overlap between the official’s new industry job and projects he or she handled as a government employee, the opinion says, “you must withdraw from direct conversation with government officials and use intermediaries for all subsequent interaction on those matters.”
In another opinion, an ethics counselor informs an Army official that he or she is “prohibited from receiving compensation” from specific companies — their names are redacted — “for one year following the date the last delivery order, task order or contract was awarded to any of them.”
The opinion states that the official, who had not yet retired, had been contacted “over the past several months regarding possible employment opportunities.” The official “wisely” advised those companies that he or she was “not able to discuss employment with them,” the opinion says.