WASHINGTON — If you follow changes in leadership at defense companies, it will come as no surprise that a number of defense executives join industry after years of service in the Pentagon. While these leaders bring relevant experience and knowledge to defense companies, a new report by one advocacy group argues the revolving door between the Pentagon and defense boardrooms creates unethical circumstances that could cost taxpayers billions of dollars.
According to the Project on Government Oversight report, there were “645 instances of the top 20 defense contractors in fiscal year 2016 hiring former senior government officials, military officers, members of Congress, and senior legislative staff as lobbyists, board members, or senior executives in 2018.” Of the Defense Department officials that moved to the private sector, a quarter of them (95) went to work for the top five American defense contractors (Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman).
Of the defense companies on this year’s Defense News Top 100 list, the top six (Lockheed, Raytheon, BAE Systems, Northrop, Boeing and General Dynamics) have 338 instances total in which senior government officials were hired as executives, directors or lobbyists, according to POGO’s database. It’s important to note that because some lobbyists work for multiple defense contractors, there are more instances than officials.
A leading concern is that former officials who join defense contractors will use their influence to win contracts from the services or agencies they recently led.
The POGO report cites retired Maj. Gen. Mike Boera, former U.S. Air Force director of programs in the office of the deputy chief of staff for strategic plans and programs, as one example. Boera joined Raytheon in 2015 as the executive of its intelligence, information and services division, which covers some of Raytheon’s cyber, command and control, mission support, training and services, sensors, and imaging business. That year, the Air Force awarded Raytheon $2.9 billion in contracts. (Boera joined Leidos in June 2018 as the vice president of Air Force strategic accounts where he is “responsible for strengthening and advancing trusted relationships with the United States Air Force with the objective of increased revenue and growth in Air Force business,” according to his LinkedIn account.)
This is not to say the reason Raytheon won these contracts was because of Boera’s former position, but critics argue that being unable to confirm that as fact is a problem.
Mandy Smithberger, the director of POGO’s Center for Defense Information and author of the report, said part of the problem of defense officials moving into industry leadership positions is that “the revolving door is corrosive and breeds cynicism around the decisions made at the Pentagon. Over our history we’ve repeatedly heard from whistleblowers and members of the military who complain this breeds a culture where government officials are subservient to contractors and people who question costs or performance are told to stop rocking the boat lest they be retaliated against professionally."
Smithberger believes the leadership and management skills former officials bring to the table are not why they are hired. “It’s for their connections and influence,” she said.
So, how can former government officials avoid conflicts of interest when joining industry?
“Start with a blanket two-year cooling off period, and simplifying the laws to really reflect how to best protect the public interest. Some of the people we reached out to for comment, but weren’t willing to go on the record, said their companies interpreted restrictions that were placed on them much more broadly than the government did because they wanted to avoid even the appearance of a conflict," Smithberger said. "The laws also need to be updated to reflect how influence really works, and how it’s much broader than what requires one to register as a lobbyist.”
Daniel Cebul is an editorial fellow and general assignments writer for Defense News, C4ISRNET, Fifth Domain and Federal Times.