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From Congress to contract: Heather Wilson says 10K per month Sandia Labs deal met ethics rules

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Copyright © 2013 Albuquerque Journal

Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., walked out of Congress on Jan. 3, 2009, and into a $10,000-a-month consulting contract with Sandia National Laboratories that started paying the next day.

The groundwork had already been laid for the arrangement, which Wilson said was completely appropriate, and complied with all House ethics and disclosure rules.

Documents obtained by the Journal show that Heather Wilson and Co. LLC was organized as a New Mexico business on Dec. 8, 2008. Wilson was listed as organizer and later as president.

Eleven days later, on Dec. 19, 2008, Sandia sent the new company a contract offer under which Wilson’s firm would provide an “advisory role” to Sandia’s “president, executive vice presidents and vice presidents” on a broad range of national security topics, congressional interaction strategies and other matters.

The congressional disclosure form Wilson filed upon leaving Congress listed future employment as being with her newly formed company, but made no mention of the Sandia consulting contract.

The form, known as the House termination report, requires disclosure of “any agreement or arrangement with respect to future employment,” but Wilson said in a Journal interview last week that congressional rules required her to list only her company – not Sandia – because the company was her employer. There is no requirement to list her employer’s clients, she said.

“If someone asked me who my employer was or what my employment was, they were asking what entity was signing my paycheck, not who all the clients of that entity were,” Wilson said.

“In law and on that form, my employer, who gave me … all of my withholdings, who was doing the taxes, who the paycheck comes from – my employer was Heather Wilson and Co. LLC.”

“Those rules are there for a good reason,” the former congresswoman said in an emailed statement after the telephone interview. “I read them, sought advice on them and fully complied with them, including disclosure with the House Ethics Committee.”

Wilson told the Journal she negotiated the contract with Sandia, but did not remember when negotiations with the lab began or who initiated them. She said she didn’t recall whether her company had clients other than Sandia immediately upon leaving Congress.

Sandia did not respond to written questions from the Journal. The lab has not responded to a Journal request to speak to lab president Paul Hommert.

Wilson, now president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City, South Dakota, represented New Mexico’s Albuquerque-based 1st Congressional District as a Republican from 1998 to early 2009. She served on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, House Committee on Armed Services, and the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Before Congress, she graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy, was a Rhodes Scholar, and served as an adviser to NATO and the National Security Council.

The contractual relationship between Wilson and Sandia was discussed publicly during her second unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2012.

Background

The contract sent to Wilson’s company on Dec. 19, 2008, was unsigned but stipulated the offer could be accepted by performing the requested tasks.

An invoice sent from Wilson’s company to Sandia on Feb. 5, 2009, billed $10,000 for her first month of “consulting services” and says the work began on Jan. 4., 2009. That was her first day of returning to private citizenship after Congress. She did not seek re-election in 2008 to a new House term in order to make her first run for U.S. Senate.

The documents obtained by the Journal expand on a Department of Energy inspector general’s report earlier this year that found Wilson’s contractual work with Sandia and other national labs between 2009 and 2011 “tends to indicate” federal money was used for prohibited lobbying for federally funded projects.

Wilson, Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory all disputed that, but both Sandia and LANL repaid money to DOE.

Wilson ended her consulting work for the labs in 2011, before her Senate bid in 2012.

House rules

Outgoing members lining up post-congressional employment while they are still serving is not a violation of House rules as long as negotiations don’t start until after their successors are elected.

However, those employment negotiations are required to be disclosed to House Committee on Ethics members within three days after they begin.

Wilson said she filed that document as required. The document is not public unless a member needs to recuse him or herself from a vote, because it involves the potential client or employer. She said she does not have a copy.

The publicly available document in which Wilson listed her future employment with her own company – with no mention of the Sandia contract – is the termination report, a final financial disclosure statement filed with the clerk of the House within 30 days of the member leaving office. That document was received by the House clerk on Feb. 12, 2009.

Wilson said she “fully and completely complied” with House ethics rules after seeking guidance on what disclosures were expected.

“I did what I was supposed to do,” Wilson said in the telephone interview. “I disclosed things. I made sure there weren’t conflicts of interest and I answered the questions honestly as they were posed.”

Private venture

Wilson’s private company listed just one officer when its initial documents were filed in New Mexico: Heather Wilson.

Her husband, Jay Hone, is designated as the business agent. Wilson told the Journal the company never had paid employees other than her.

Wilson said she did not consider herself an employee of Heather Wilson and Co. until she began getting paid on Jan. 4, 2009, and reported the job beginning at that point – although she had set up the company in December.

“I was planning for my future employment as you would normally do when you’re leaving Congress,” Wilson said. “I disclosed what I was doing as was required by House rules, and I didn’t begin taking a salary or doing any of those things, and no contracts began until after I left.”

House membership

Wilson’s last U.S. House vote affecting Sandia appears to have been cast in September 2008. Wilson voted “yes” on a continuing resolution to fund the federal government, including operations at Sandia, through the following year.

In addition to House members being required to disclose the date they begin negotiating for new employment and the private company with which they are engaging in talks, they are barred from participating in votes that would affect that company.

Wilson said Sandia never received any special considerations from her during her final weeks in office.

House ethics guidelines warn members to be cautious of perceived impropriety when seeking employment with organizations that lobby Congress.

“Members and employees should be particularly careful in negotiating for future employment, especially when negotiating with any individual or entity that could be substantially affected by the performance of official duties,” the House ethics manual says.

Wilson said she kept those concerns in mind and closely followed House ethics rules.

“I comply not only with the letter of things, but think about why things are the way they are and try to do the right thing. That’s who I am.”

Wilson’s preparations for future employment while still in office drew criticism from Nuclear Watch New Mexico, an anti-nuclear weapons advocacy group based in Santa Fe.

“Our feeling about it is that it looks like she met the legal niceties and formalities but she didn’t really level with the New Mexican voters by making very clear she was on the payroll for the labs” when she left office, said Jay Coghlan, executive director of the group.

Coghlan said Wilson should step down from her current seat on a National Nuclear Security Administration review panel because of her past relationship with Sandia. The NNSA review group is looking for ways to improve oversight of nuclear programs at national labs, including Sandia and Los Alamos.

Wilson defended her participation on the NNSA board, which did not begin until after her consulting agreements ended, saying other board members have past employment relationship with the labs and consequently have significant expertise.

Past review

Sandia National Laboratories is funded by the Department of Energy. The lab operations are managed under contract by Lockheed Martin, a private company.

Months after Wilson started work for Sandia, Heather Wilson and Co. LLC established a similar $10,000-per-month consulting deal with Los Alamos National Laboratory. Later she also provided consulting services to Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Nevada National Security Site.

A DOE inspector general’s report in June, reviewing Wilson’s lab contracts, found evidence of prohibited lobbying, although both Wilson and Sandia denied it. The review also found insufficient documentation of what work was done to justify the consulting payments.

Wilson’s contract with Sandia stated the former congresswoman was prohibited from lobbying or having any contact with “government customers.”

Sandia has repaid the government about $226,000 it paid to Wilson between 2009 and 2011.

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