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Former defense secretary Jim Mattis rejoins General Dynamics board

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 13, 2017, during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

By AARON GREGG | The Washington Post | Published: August 7, 2019

Former defense secretary Jim Mattis has been elected to the board of General Dynamics, the company announced after a vote on Wednesday, allowing him to reclaim a powerful position at the top of America's defense industry.

The announcement comes at a time when General Dynamics one of the last military-industrial conglomerates remaining from the industry's Reagan-era heyday is trying to remake itself for the information age. Last year, the company sealed a deal to buy CSRA, a massive IT contractor, for almost $10 billion. It is the fourth-largest corporate recipient of U.S. government contract dollars.

"Jim is a thoughtful, deliberate and principled leader with a proven track record of selfless service to our nation," chief executive Phebe Novakovic said in a statement. "We are honored to have him on our board."

Mattis's compensation and benefits package is to be detailed in a later financial disclosure form.

Mattis is the latest influential military official to join a major defense contractor, part of the so-called "revolving door" between business and government that has long concerned government ethics experts.

A report released late last year by the Project on Government Oversight found that defense contractors had hired at least 50 high-level government officials since Donald Trump became president, among 600 such instances in the past decade.

Mattis began his first stint on the board of General Dynamics in 2013 following more than 40 years of service with the U.S. Marine Corps. From 2010 to 2013, he led U.S. Central Command, which spearheads the military's operations in the Middle East, including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

He commanded a rare respect, bordering on reverence, among many members of the armed services, and cultivated a public image defined by uncompromising toughness.

He never married, and is often described as a "warrior monk," for his bookish devotion to military strategy and history. He adopted the call sign "chaos," which stands for "Colonel Has an Outstanding Solution," he told an audience at the National Harbor in 2017.

Mattis led the Defense Department during the first two years of Trump's presidency. Trump frequently expressed admiration for him in public, referring to him as one of "my generals," and calling him by his other nickname, "Mad Dog" Mattis.

Behind the scenes, Mattis often seemed to check the president's instincts. According to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's 2018 book "Fear," Mattis once told an associate "we're not going to do any of that. We're going to be much more measured," after Trump had told him by phone to kill Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Mattis left government for the second time in December. He had clashed with the president over a plan to withdraw troops from Syria and Afghanistan, saying Trump should appoint someone who was "better aligned" with his views.

As defense secretary, he led numerous initiatives designed to make the Defense Department more efficient and business-friendly, an approach that was helpful to defense contractors such as his former employer.

When he became defense secretary in early 2017, he resigned from numerous positions in the private sector, including one at the conservative think tank Hoover Institution, and a handful of charities. When he stepped down from General Dynamics's board, he promised to divest all stock associated with his seat. He also forfeited stock holdings and options that had not yet vested at the time he rejoined the government, which must have added up to several hundreds of thousands of dollars based on financial disclosure forms.

When he became defense secretary, Mattis pledged not to "participate personally and substantially in any particular matter that to my knowledge has a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of General Dynamics" until he had divested of his holdings or obtained a written waiver, according to an ethics pledge he submitted at the time.

Mattis also promised not to participate personally or substantially in any matter concerning the now-disgraced Silicon Valley blood testing start-up Theranos, in which he was an investor. According to his ethics pledge at the time, Mattis was not required to divest of his Theranos stock. The company began plans to dissolve in September.

Board members at General Dynamics are given lucrative stock holdings and options, and are often closely involved in major business decisions. Board member responsibilities at General Dynamics include "reviewing, approving and monitoring the company's business strategies, annual operating plan and significant corporate actions," according to the company's corporate governance guidelines. Board members also have responsibility for "advising and counseling management," and ensuring appropriate ethics policies are in place with respect to the company's relationship with customers.

Separately, a new provision included in the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018 prohibits retired officials such as Mattis from engaging in "lobbying activities with respect to the Department of Defense." Such lobbying activities could include "any oral or written communication ... to a covered executive branch official or a covered legislative branch official that is made on behalf of a client" with regard to a range of federal policies.

Before Mattis's election to the board, five of General Dynamics's 11 board members had been former high-ranking military officials: Rudy deLeon served as deputy secretary of defense from 2000 to 2001; retired Navy Adm. Cecil Haney led the U.S. Strategic Command from 2013 to 2016; retired Air Force Gen. Lester Lyles led the Air Force Material Command from 2000 to 2003; retired British Army Gen. Peter Wall was chief of the general staff for the British Army from 2010 to 2014; and chairman and chief executive Novakovic has worked for the CIA, the Defense Department and the Office of Management and Budget.

General Dynamics is not the only company packing its board with former military and government officials. Former deputy undersecretary of defense Bob Work joined Raytheon's board in 2017, and Nikki Haley, Trump's ambassador to the United Nations, joined Boeing's board last year.

Big tech companies have benefited from the revolving door as well; Amazon recently hired former deputy assistant secretary of the Navy, Victor Gavin, to assist with its cloud computing business. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
 

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