Democrats criticize Trump's Air Force secretary nominee over past work

Heather Wilson, President Donald Trump's pick to be the next secretary of the Air Force, defends her performance after she left Congress in 2009 and worked as a paid consultant for a nuclear lab in New Mexico. During her nomination hearing on Thursday, March 30, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Wilson was grilled by Democrats on the Senate Committee on Armed Service about questionable payments she received.


By RICHARD LARDNER | Associated Press | Published: March 30, 2017

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump's nominee for Air Force secretary came under scrutiny Thursday as Democrats questioned her work as a defense industry consultant and a conversation she had a decade ago with a federal prosecutor during a corruption probe.

During her confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Heather Wilson defended her performance, telling the panel she did nothing improper. To avoid any potential conflicts of interest, Wilson has committed to selling stocks she holds in more than a dozen companies that have Defense Department contracts.

Wilson is the first service secretary selected by Trump to appear before the committee. The president's nominee to lead the Army, Vincent Viola, withdrew in early February because of financial entanglements, and about three weeks later Philip B. Bilden, the Navy secretary nominee, withdrew for similar reasons.

After serving five terms in Congress from New Mexico, Wilson collected nearly half a million dollars in questionable payments from federally funded nuclear labs, the Energy Department's inspector general said in a 2013 report. Wilson failed to provide documentation for the consulting work she did to earn $20,000 a month from the Los Alamos and Sandia national labs in New Mexico from January 2009 to March 2011, the report said.

Contractors, including Lockheed Martin and Bechtel, reimbursed the government for most of the $464,203 paid to Wilson, the report said.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the committee's top Democrat, pressed Wilson on her arrangement with Sandia, asking her if she could provide proof she performed the work required under the arrangement. Reed said the question is relevant because Wilson, if she's confirmed, will be responsible for holding contractors accountable when they don't submit the required paperwork yet still want to be paid.

"I did the work. I complied with the contract. The review found no fault with me," Wilson said. She said auditors from the Energy Department never contacted her.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., cited instances where invoices Wilson submitted for work at the labs lacked sufficient detail to know exactly what she had done.

"It was difficult to discern what service you provided to whom and when," Blumenthal. "Shouldn't there be better oversight of contractor billing and documentation? And isn't this a bad example ... of how billing and invoice submission should be conducted?"

Wilson repeated the answer she gave Reed.

Reed also focused on an October 2006 telephone call Wilson made while still a member of Congress to David Iglesias, a U.S. attorney in New Mexico. Iglesias was one of seven federal prosecutors fired a few months later by the Bush administration.

At the time, Iglesias was handling a number of politically charged public corruption cases. "I have concerns about this action in terms of House ethics rules, and the possibility a federal prosecutor may have felt pressured by Congress in an ongoing investigation," Reed said.

Wilson said she placed the call after being told by "an individual or constituent with knowledge of ongoing investigations" that Iglesias was intentionally delaying prosecution of the cases.

Reed wanted to know the name of the individual because knowing that might shed light on Wilson's motivation for making the call. But she refused.

"I didn't betray them then and I'm not going to betray them now," Wilson said.

Wilson informed the Defense Department's general counsel last week that she would divest of stocks she holds in companies that do work for the department, including Intel, IBM, Honeywell and Raytheon.

Wilson, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982, also said she would resign her current position as president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.

Ranking Member Jack Reed, D-R.I., grills Heather Wilson, President Donald Trump's pick to be the next secretary of the Air Force, during a Senate Committee on Armed Service's nomination hearing on Thursday, March 30, 2017, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.