Alert readers who saw last night's ABC report tell me the Air Force contract in question was for a giant video screen, allowing spectators to more easily view the Thunderbirds' aerial show. The Navy's precision flying team (The Blue Angels) already has a video system, but it didn't cost the taxpayers a dime. Following the example of various college football programs, the Navy worked a trade with the system's owner. In return for using the screen to show the Blue Angels' performance, the system's owner air commercials on the big screen, before and after the show. ABC wondered why the Air Force didn't follow the Navy's lead (a fair question), and why the screen was purchased, even though the Thunderbirds never specifically requested it. However, the report still falls far short of the mark in proving that Generals Moseley, Hornburg and Jumper somehow conspired to steer the contract to Hornburg's firm.
ABC News is reporting that three top Air Force generals--two retired, the other, the service's current Chief of Staff--are under investigation by the FBI for alleged contracting improprieties. On the surface, those allegations seem quite daming, particularly in light of the recent Air Force contracting scandal that sent a high-ranking civilian official to prison. But on closer examination, it appears as though ABC has omitted critical details of the purported "scandal" and the accompanying inquiry.
According to "Chief Investigative Correspondent" Brian Ross, the current Air Force Chief of Staff (General T. Michael Moseley) and his predecessor, General John Jumper, may have helped steer a contract for the USAF Thunderbirds precision flying team, to a company that had another retired four star (General Hal Hornburg) as a partner. At the time of his retirement, General Hornburg was commander of the Air Force's Air Combat Command (ACC), headquartered at Langley AFB, VA. The Thunderbirds, based at Nellis AFB near Las Vegas, fall under ACC.
ABC hasn't made Ross's video report available, and the details posted at The Blotter (Ross's ABC website) are a bit sketchy. We know the amount of the contract, but what type of equipment or services did the contract cover? I've seen a few opaque references to a "sound system," but there's no clear indication of exactly what the money was supposed to buy.
Additionally, The Blotter doesn't name the firm that now employs General Hornburg. Retired generals working for defense contractors is nothing new--what we need are specific details on the size of the firm, it's relationship with DOD, and (most importantly) whether Hornburg was actively involved in lobbying for the Thunderbirds contract, or working on other projects for the firm. The distinction is critical; many retired flag officers work for large defense firms with thousands of employees. If Hornburg was actively soliciting the Thunderbirds deal, that's one thing. But if he was merely part of a large firm that sought the bid, then ABC's charge is little more than "guilt by association."
Mr. Ross does note that the contract was eventually cancelled after a rival firm filed a formal complaint--SOP in federal contracting circles. But you won't get any real perspective on the matter until you dig into the comments section, and a post from a reader named Oxy.
1) YOU REPORT: Gen Moseley and Gen Jumper are SUBJECTS of an investigation.
TRUTH: Only retired Gen Hornburg is a subject, the others are witnesses.
2) YOU REPORT: Gen Moseley and Gen Jumper “awarded the contract.”
TRUTH: The contract was awarded by competitive bid and the selection was made in the discretion of
the Source Selection Authority, a Colonel working at Air Combat Command.
3) YOU REPORT: The contract was cancelled after the Air Force General Counsel questioned the integrity of
TRUTH: An unsuccessful bidder filed a protest and the Air Force cancelled the contract due to mistakes
in the selection process completely unrelated to either Gen Moseley or Gen Jumper.
As ABC knows (or should), the Air Force is strictly prohibited from commenting on an ongoing FBI investigation. So you incorrectly report Gen Moseley and Gen Jumper are subjects, and they can do
nothing to defend themselves. A year from now when the FBI has completed their investigation and Gen Moseley and Gen Jumper are cleared, will you report your errors? You are here to check up on our government, and I have respect and gratitude that you do, but in this case you failed to report accurately and innocent careers are being damaged.
Reader JESH offers addtional information that was also ignored by ABC:
"...There is another side -- the truth -- which was repeatedly told to these reporters which they ignored INCLUDING the fact that this company intended to get this to the USAF FOR FREE. ABC ignored that. USAF lawyers and contracting forced this through detailed competitive bidding and knew everything about this including Hornburg's proper involvement during the one year cool down period. If a problem existed during the contracting process they would have never let it go through the process. Hornburg violated nothing -- why put a 36 year career on the line for this. Ask ABC about it. See if they post it."
Again, there are many unanswered questions in this case, but the observations of Oxy and JESH certainly cast this "scandal" in a different light. The award of "single source" contracts is a daily occurrence in the DOD, with the decision on who receives multi-million dollar contracts is often deferred to lower-ranking personnel. Both the Air Force and its largest command (ACC) are multi-billion dollar enterprises. There's no way the Air Force Chief of Staff or ACC Commander can monitor every $50 million contract awarded for goods or services.
If the Thunderbirds contract was approved by a Colonel in the ACC Contracting Office (again, SOP in the Defense Department), then it is quite possible that Moseley and Jumper had no knowledge of the deal. A more salient question might be the relationship between General Hornburg and the contracting officer. But, as JESH points out, the Air Force was well aware of potential problems with the deal, and thoroughly vetted it before allowing the contract to be approved. However, that claim is clearly missing from Ross's "expose."
Mr. Ross and his team at ABC style themselves as investigative journalists, demanding answers to tough questions. In this case, it seems, Ross and company owe the public some answers as well. Without those answers, Mr. Ross's report is little more than a hit piece, filled with scandalous accusations, but missing the details needed to support those charges. Back in the days when American journalism had standards, Ross's report would have never been aired--a producer would have likely told him to keep digging, and see if he could actually substantiate those allegations. Today, Ross's shoddy work is showcased on World News Tonight. My, how times have changed.