Major General Stephen Goldfein (DoD Photo)
USAF regulations bar permanent-change-of-station moves for personnel under investigation. So, why did a Major General, implicated in the "Thunder Vision" scandal, receive two new assignments while the matter was being probed?
by Nate Hale
Did the Air Force violate its own personnel rules, by sending a two-star general to new assignments while the Defense Department was investigating his role in a controversial contract for the USAF Thunderbirds?
The answer to that question apparently lies in how the service's regulations on assignments and investigations are interpreted.
Air Force officials insist that no rules were broken when Major General Stephen Goldfein moved from Nellis AFB, Nevada to Langley AFB, Virginia in November of 2006, and on to the Pentagon just three months later.
But other Air Force officers and senior non-commissioned officers, serving on active duty and retired, disagree with that assertion. They claim the Goldfein transfers are simply more evidence of a double-standard that exists for flag officers.
General Goldfein's permanent-change-of-station (PCS) moves occurred as DoD investigators and the FBI probed the Thunderbirds contract, including allegations that Goldfein attempted to steer it to Strategic Message Solutions (SMS), a company that included a retired Air Force four-star general, Hal M. Hornburg, among its partners. Goldfein worked briefly for Hornburg at one point in his military career.
A report released last month by the Defense Department Inspector General implicated five Air Force members, including Major General Goldfein, for directing the contract to SMS. At a cost of nearly $50 million, the firm was supposed to upgrade audiovisual support for the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's precision flying team.
At Goldfein's urging, a USAF contracting panel initially accepted the SMS proposal, despite the fact that the company existed largely on paper, and its bid was twice as high as those offered by competitors. The contract was cancelled in early 2006, after a rival firm lodged a formal protest and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne referred the matter to the DoD IG for investigation. The inquiry began in February barely three months after SMS received the contract.
Twenty-three months after the inquiry began, the IG delivered a 250-page report that offered a scathing indictment of the contracting process and the actions of General Goldfein. DoD investigators found "the award [to Strategic Message Solutions] was tainted with improper influence, irregular procurement practices and preferential treatment."
They also determined the general's activities "represented a pattern of behavior that gave an advantage to SMS..and so constituted preferential treatment...In short, we believe the source selection process may not have selected SMS absent his influence.
In an interview with investigators, General Goldfein strongly denied that charge, asserting that he did not steer the deal to SMS. At the time the contract was up for bids, Goldfein was Commander of the Air Warfare Center at Nellis AFB, an organization responsible for both the Thunderbirds and the team's support efforts.
Responding to the IG report, which was made public last month, Secretary Wynne took administrative action against Major General Goldfein and two other individuals involved in the contract. He referred to lower-ranking individuals to their chains-of-command for possible action.
The penalty imposed on Goldfein is believed to be a Letter of Reprimand, which the military describes as non-judicial punishment. General Goldfein has not responded to media requests for comment on the matter. He currently serves as Vice Director of the Pentagon's Joint Staff, a position he has held since February 2007.
But the IG probe did not address the issue of Goldfein's continued advancement during the lengthy investigation. As the inquiry continued, the general was rewarded with two high-profile jobs that took him to a command headquarters and on to the Pentagon.
In November 2006, less than a year after the probe began, General Goldfein, a career fighter pilot, moved to the Vice Commander position at Air Combat Command headquarters, located at Langley AFB, Virginia. Three months later, in February of 2007, he was transferred to his current post on the Joint Staff.
General Goldfein's multiple moves during the Thunder Vision investigation are seemingly at odds with service personnel regulations, which prohibit PCS moves by individuals under investigation by "security forces or the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI)." USAF Instruction 36-2110, which details the service's assignment policies, lists several categories of personnel who are in-eligible for reassignment. Section 184.108.40.206 AAC 17 in the regulation describes the ban on PCS moves by those under investigation. The prohibition does not extend to "normal" security clearance investigations.
Goldfein's repeated reassignment during the probe has touched off a minor tempest in the Air Force. Current and former unit commanders, senior enlisted advisers and first sergeants contacted by In From the Cold were uniformly critical of decisions to let the general move to new jobs. All of those who offered opinions on the matter have extensive personnel experience; they believe the Goldfein example is a clear violation of assignment rules, creating a "double standard" for senior officers.
"I've never seen anyone allowed to PCS while under investigation," said a base personnel chief. "This sounds wrong and it should be investigated." The personnel officer (and other experts) interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity.
A senior non-commissioned officer, who serves as the superintendent of a large support squadron, was equally blunt: "If I had an airman who was under some type of investigation, they would be placed on administrative hold. An 'airman' is an 'airman' whether they're an E-1 [the lowest enlisted rank] or an E-10 [General of the Air Force]."
"This is definitely a double standard," said a civilian Air Force official. "One for the 'Good Ole Boys and Girls' and one for the rest of us."
A retired Chief Master Sergeant, who served as both a first sergeant and senior enlisted adviser during a 25-year Air Force career, voiced similar thoughts. In his experience, individuals "under any type of investigation were not allowed to PCS until the matter was completely resolved." He said the regulation was widely interpreted to include inquiries by non-Air Force agencies, such as the Defense Criminal Investigative Service, the investigative arm of the DoD IG. DCIS agents handled much of the Thunder Vision probe.
While acknowledging that personnel of all ranks are subject to the assignment regulation--and its stated limits on PCS moves--Air Force media representatives painted a different picture of the Goldfein controversy, suggesting the reassignment matter was more nuanced than it might appear.
Major David Small, a spokesman for the Secretary of the Air Force Office of Public Affairs, affirmed that the inquiry was on-going at the time of General Goldfein's reassignments. But in each case, he observed, "There was simply an on-going investigation and nothing had been substantiated."
Another Air Staff public affairs officer, Captain Michael Andrews, stated that the Thunder Vision investigation "was not initiated with Goldfein as its subject," claiming that "the general was not interviewed until early 2008," shortly before Mr. Wynne received the IG's final report. Interview dates for Major General Goldfein are listed in the document, but Andrews did not offer an explanation for his comments about who was (or wasn't) targeted by the IG probe.
Andrews also suggested that lower-ranking personnel, facing circumstances similar to that of General Goldfein, would also be allowed to move to new assignments.
Gary Comerford, A spokesman for the DoD Inspector General, refused to identify specific targets of the investigation. He referred reporters to redacted versions of the IG report, which have been posted on-line.
However, critics refute the Pentagon's claims. They note that senior officers in all services operate under a personnel system that is separate from those serving enlisted personnel and officers below flag rank. The result, they say, is a system that is more accommodating for senior personnel, and willing to overlook issues that might derail assignments for lower-ranking personnel.
As examples of how the network operates, critics note the long advancement of former Major General Thomas Fiscus and Brigadier General Richard Hassan. Fiscus, the service's former Judge Advocate General, had a long history of inappropriate relationships with female subordinates, while Hassan (who ran general officer management office) was accused of sexual harassment toward women in his command. Both men were eventually punished and forced to retire as Colonels, after their activities were exposed.
In the Air Force, assignments for general officers and civilian equivalents are handled by the Senior Leader Management Office (SLMO), located in Crystal City, Virginia. Flag-level commanders also play an important role in determining where general officers and senior civilians will be assigned.
According to Captain Andrews, officials at the SLMO are "unaware of any case in which an general officer was denied a PCS move due to an on-going investigation." Andrews could not provide statistics on the number general officer moves that occurred while the individual was under investigation, but those cases appear to be rare. A spokesman at Air Combat Command, where Goldfein served as Vice-Commander, said he "could not recall another example of a general being assigned to the ACC staff while under investigation."
By comparison, commanders and first sergeants who spoke with In From the Cold could not remember a single instance when junior personnel moved to a new assignment while being investigated. On the other hand, most could recall examples of junior personnel--particularly enlisted members--who had PCS moves delayed or cancelled, due to an investigation. They view the SLMO statement--and Goldfein's reassignment in 2006 and 2007 --as more proof of a double-standard.
Other Air Force members challenged the service's timeline of events, which was offered to explain General Goldfein's PCS moves. A senior USAF law enforcement official noted that Goldfein was actually questioned on two occasions by the DCIS, as outlined in the IG report. While the last interview took place in January of this year, DCIS investigators also spoke at length with General Goldfein on 14 September 2007, well before the probe ended.
Another Air Force law enforcement source questioned claims that the general was not a target of the inquiry. Noting that General Goldfein was advised of his rights before the September interview, the source said that action constitutes "a reasonable belief that [the subject] may have committed an offense or crime." The law enforcement official also observed that "witnesses can quickly become subjects in an investigation," depending on what is revealed.
Additionally, the IG report lists 10 different violations of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) that "may apply" to the Thunder Vision inquiry. To date, no one--including Major General Goldfein--has been charged with a UCMJ offense that would require an Article 32 hearing (similar to a civilian grand jury), or a courts-martial. The sanction imposed on Goldfein was characterized as an "administrative action." The U.S. Attorney's Office in Las Vegas, which also looked into the matter, also declined to press criminal charges.
While some Air Force members will complain that the general received only a "slap on the wrist," the penalty will likely derail his career. One Air Force civilian, who has followed Goldfein's climb through the ranks, described him as a "fair-haired boy"--until the scandal broke.
In the wake of the Thunder Vision report, Mr. Wynne and the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Michael Moseley, issued a letter on "Senior Leader Responsibilities in Ethics." In their memorandum, dated 26 March, Wynne and Moseley reminded USAF senior officials that "we collectively set the Air Force's ethical tone and serve as the example for all Air Force members and employees."
Cynics found a hint of irony in the letter signed by Moseley. The Chief of Staff was among those scrutinized in the Thunder Vision probe. Investigators found that General Moseley had a personal relationship with Ed Shipley, the president of SMS, and even spent the night at Shipley's home--while the firm was bidding for the Thunderbirds audiovisual contract.
Moseley told the DCIS that the contract did not come up during his stay at Shipley's Pennsylvania residence. Shipley's partner, General Hornburg, was also present for the visit, which occurred in July 2005, when the retired general was supposedly in a "cool down" period that prevented official contacts with the Air Force.