WASHINGTON – Former U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson’s official nomination to become secretary of the Air Force arrived on Capitol Hill this week, paving the way for a confirmation hearing Thursday.
The White House announced the Republican’s nomination in late January but did not formally submit the paperwork to the Senate Armed Services Committee until Tuesday, leading some on Capitol Hill to wonder whether her nomination had run into trouble.
Although Wilson comes highly recommended for the position from the White House and many in the national defense community, she’s likely to face questions at her hearing about a lucrative and controversial consulting contract she entered into with Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque after leaving Congress.
Wilson, 56, has been serving as president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology in Rapid City since 2013. She is an Air Force Academy graduate and Rhodes scholar who represented New Mexico in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1998 to 2009, serving on the Armed Forces and Intelligence committees. She lost a bid for the U.S. Senate to Democrat Martin Heinrich in the 2012 general election.
President Donald Trump has struggled to get top military leadership posts filled early in his administration. Army secretary nominee Vincent Viola withdrew in February, citing business conflicts. Navy secretary nominee Philip Bilden stepped aside earlier this month, also citing business conflicts.
Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, both New Mexico Democrats who know Wilson well from her time in the U.S. House of Representatives, have declined to say whether they will support or oppose her nomination.
“I want to watch what the Senate Armed Services Committee does,” Udall told the Journal in a brief interview this week. “I’m going to let the committee do its work. The best thing to do is let the committee look hard and tough at those issues.”
Heinrich, a member of the Armed Services Committee, said Friday that Wilson could be an asset for New Mexico’s three Air Force bases.
“Heather Wilson’s distinguished service in the Air Force, experience working on the National Security Council, and her firsthand knowledge of New Mexico’s Air Force installations would offer a unique and valuable perspective at the Pentagon,” Heinrich said in a statement. “I look forward to meeting with her and receiving her testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.”
Wilson could not be reached for comment Friday.
A 2013 Department of Energy inspector general’s report alleged Sandia, then run by defense giant Lockheed Martin, had inappropriately paid Wilson about $226,000 in consulting fees beginning in January 2009, to lobby for Sandia to take on new assignments for the federal government. Sandia and Wilson have said no prohibited lobbying occurred.
However, Sandia reimbursed the government more than $226,000 for fees paid to the consulting company run by Wilson, who was not mentioned in the settlement agreement between the Justice Department and Sandia Corp.
In 2015, Wilson told the Journal there was no impropriety.
“There is no finding of any contact by me with any member of Congress or executive branch official concerning the Sandia contract extension,” Wilson said. “That’s because there was none. I was not a lobbyist for Sandia, and I was not a member of the contract strategy team criticized by the inspector general’s report.”
Wilson’s financial paperwork and disclosures required of her by the Office of Government Ethics as part of the confirmation process have not yet been made public.
Lockheed Martin, which oversaw Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque before Honeywell nabbed the massive contract in a bidding contest late last year, is the Air Force’s largest contractor. If confirmed, Wilson would oversee ongoing negotiations between the federal government and Lockheed Martin related to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapons system in military history.
Jay Coghlan, director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, a nuclear and defense watchdog group, urged senators to vote against Wilson’s nomination. He said her past lobbying work for Lockheed Martin should disqualify her.
Five days after nominating Wilson, Trump signed an executive order prohibiting administration officials from working on issues that are largely related to the work they did for private-sector clients, but it applies only to work done within the past two years. Wilson’s former consulting firm – Heather Wilson and Company LLC – received $226,378 between January 2009 and March 2011 by Sandia Corp. LLC, according to a June 2013 report by the Energy Department inspector general.
“She’s going to end up overseeing the Air Force’s biggest ever contract (the F-35 fighter) with Lockheed Martin when she acted as a paid agent for Lockheed Martin,” Coghlan said. “It’s reported to be a more than trillion-dollar contract, and it’s plagued with problems.”
Some observers have suggested Wilson could recuse herself from negotiations with Lockheed Martin if confirmed as Air Force secretary to avoid the appearance of impropriety.
Wilson would be the first Air Force Academy graduate to serve as secretary and the second consecutive woman in the position.