Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Admonishment

Retired Air Force General Mike Moseley achieved a rather ignominious legal first this week.

More than a year after he was dismissed as the service's Chief of Staff--due to problems in the USAF's nuclear enterprise--Moseley received a Letter of Admonishment for another scandal that occurred during his tenure. With receipt of that letter, Moseley gains the dubious distinction of being the only Air Force Chief of Staff to be sanctioned by the service after leaving office (emphasis ours).

General Moseley was punished for his role in the "Thundervision" controversy. We've been covering the scandal since it first broke more than three years ago, with word that another retired four-star, General Hal Hornburg, was under investigation by federal authorities.

While Hornburg was eventually cleared of any wrong-doing, the scandal soon ensnared other officers, including General Moseley, then serving as the Air Force's top uniformed officer. This week's punishment (apparently) brings the controversy to a close, ending another, sad chapter in recent Air Force history.

"Thundervision" began with a simple idea. Someone noticed that the Navy's Blue Angels were using a portable, Jumbtron-style TV screen during their air shows. Video coverage of their performance, projected onto the screen, allowed spectators to get a better look at the F/A-18s and their maneuvers. Never content to take a backseat to Navy, someone in the Air Force chain decided that the Thunderbirds needed a similar capability.

But the USAF decided on a different approach. While the Blue Angels got their Jumbotron and video crew for free (in exchange for allowing advertising on the screen before and after their shows), the Air Force elected to hire a contractor. The deal was worth an estimated $50 million, with the winning firm providing air show coverage and other, specified services for the Thunderbirds.

Hornburg entered the picture as a partner in a company called Strategic Message Solutions. His partner was a man named Ed Shipley, who made a fortune in the TV infomercial business. Shipley is also an experienced pilot who owns--and flies--several vintage warbirds, including an F-86 Sabre and an F-4U Corsair.

After retiring from the infomercial business, Mr. Shipley parlayed his flying skills, aircraft collection (and military connections) into a slot with the USAF Heritage Flight, which combines current and historical aircraft for air show demonstrations. At one point, Shipley was one of only nine civilian pilots certified to perform with the team.

To no one's surprise, Hornburg and Shipley's firm won the Thundervision contract back in 2005, despite the fact that other companies offered the same services at a much lower price. When they cried foul, the Defense Department Inspector General launched the first of two investigation into the bidding process, and the conduct of senior officers involved with the contract. The SMS deal was eventually cancelled.

Two separate probes revealed plenty of questionable activity. Not only did SMS get the original contract in near-record time, but the Air Force paid little attention to its much-higher bid. Concerns about cost were apparently brushed aside in the scramble to acquire a video screen capability for the Thunderbirds.

Investigators also discovered that senior Air Force officers went to bat for SMS, including Major General Stephen Goldfein, then-commander of the Air Force Warfare Center at Nellis AFB, Nevada. In that post, Goldfein supervised a number of functions, including the Thunderbirds and their support projects. While he was not authorized to select the winning firm for the video services contract, General Goldfein clearly tried to influence the process. From one of our updates on the Thundervision scandal, posted in June 2008:

As part of his lobbying effort, Goldfein tried to become a voting member of the source selection panel that awarded the contract. Told that he could not serve in that capacity, General Goldfein signed on as an “advisor,” and urged the panel to select SMS over other private firms and a USAF squadron that specializes in audiovisual support.

Members of the selection group told investigators they felt extreme pressure from Goldfein. One even said the experience left him feeling “dirty.” After bowing to General Goldfein’s demands, the chief of the selection panel apologized to his colleagues. “Sorry guys, I caved,” he was quoted as saying.

Goldfein had his own connections to SMS--or so it seems. Before retiring from active duty in January 2005, General Hornburg served as Commander of Air Combat Command and was instrumental in Goldfein's selection for the Nellis post. Leadership of the Air Force Warfare Center is usually a stepping-stone to more important assignments, so perhaps Goldfein felt he "owed" something to General Hornburg, his former boss.

Investigators also found ties between Hornburg, Shipley and General Moseley. In 2005, while the Thundervision contract was still under consideration, the Air Force Chief of Staff and his wife accepted an invitation to spend a weekend at Mr. Shipley's Pennsylvania mansion. General Hornburg and his spouse were also guests at the Shipley home that weekend. The participants claim that the Thundervision contact was never discussed, but the gathering--and its timing--seemed more than coincidental.

Word of the social meeting between Shipley, Horburg and Moseley was revealed in the original DoD IG report on Thundervision. But investigators did not consider the issue of Moseley's conduct, and whether it violated ethical standards.

So, at the urging of Senators John McCain of Arizona and Carl Levin of Michigan, the IG launched a second probe. The inquiry was completed three months ago, about one year after Moseley was fired as Chief of Staff. After reviewing the report, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley imposed the letter of admonishment, and announced his decision this week.

But that begs an obvious question: does General Moseley deserve the delayed punishment? On one hand, the admonishment appears to be a blow for accountability--something sorely lacking in the Air Force in recent years. By sanctioning Moseley in retirement, Secretary Donley reminded USAF personnel that accountability continues--even after they hang up the uniform.

On the other hand, the punishment handed out to Mike Moseley is somewhere below that proverbial "slap-on-the-wrist." General Moseley left active duty last summer; he'll never hold a command position or face another promotion board. So, the admonishment is little more than an exercise in public humiliation for a man who was fired as Chief of Staff. From that perspective, this week's punishment could be viewed as piling on--and an effort to appease Congressional critics.

That's why we wonder if the Moseley case could have been handled in another manner. The General was still under investigation by the IG at the time of his retirement in 2008. If the allegations against Moseley were serious (and they were), why wasn't the general retained on active duty (in a special assistant post), pending outcome of the IG probe. Imposing punishment on an active-duty flag officer would have far greater impact than a letter mailed to a retired general.

But we're guessing that was part of the plan. The IG investigation represented a bit of unfinished business that needed to be wrapped up. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates had no desire to let Moseley linger on active duty, given his perceived failings in the Air Force's nuclear debacle. So, General Moseley got the boot last summer, pushing the Thundervision probe to the back burner--something to be resolved down the road.

And for that reason, we question the letter of admonishment. In our view, a general officer under investigation should not be allowed to retire, though it's happened on several occasions. Nor should a flag officer be allowed to move on to new assignments--something General Goldfein did twice during the Thundervision inquiry. In fact, military regulations specifically prohibit retirements or transfers when a service member is the target of an official probe.

So, why was Moseley allowed to retire last summer and why did Goldfein move on to jobs as Vice Commander of Air Combat Command and Vice Director of the Joint Staff before retirement? Those are the two, unanswered questions of Thundervision and quite frankly, we don't expect any resolution. Military justice remains a two-tiered system, with one set of standards for senior officers (and selected senior NCOs), and the other set for everyone else.

It's a system that allowed Buzz Moseley and Steve Goldfein to break the rules, and receive punishments that are little more than symbolic. Until the service--and DoD--are serious about sanctioning senior officers, they should forego the symbolism of admonishment letters, handed out in retirement. General Moseley took another blow to his reputation this week, but that was about it. With their rank and retirement benefits fully intact, both Goldfein and Moseley have a nice balm for their bruised egos.


Dan M said...

Another example of the AF double standard of justice between officers and enlisted.

I'm a retired CMSgt (just over 30 years) and I'm willing to bet my retirement check that if I was involved in something like that the AF would not have let me retire. They would have easily found a "special assistant" position for me. Then when the investigation was concluded they would have court martialed me and put the conviction, prison sentence and forfeiture of my retirement on page 1 of the AF Times to serve as an example to the enlisted force.

Letter of Admonishment -- what a joke! Hey SecAF, SecDef and C-I-C want to send a message about accountability? Bust his butt down to at least a 3 star. I know it's too much to expect him to get busted down to an Airman Basic and do hard time at Fort Leavenworth like a lowly enlisted person. At least take away that 4th star and the retired pay and that will get the attention of "the perfumed prince corps" as the late great Col David Hackworth would say.

Spook86 said...

Dan--Couldn't agree more. This is another sterling example of the double standard that exists in the AF legal system.

Maj Gen Goldfein clearly tried to influence the contract selection process--and was successful. His activities quickly drew the attention of the IG, but Goldfein was allowed to keep moving up the food chain until it was obvious that his actions could not be defended. And he didn't move into backwater positions. Leaving Nellis, he served briefly as ACC/CV, then moved on to Vice Director of the Joint Staff.

Let's see...who had to sign off on those assignments? General Moseley; General Keys (then-COMACC) and at the joint level, General Myers and probably, the SecDef himself. Moseley's endorsement is no surprise (birds of a feather, et. al), but the rest of these individuals have pretty good reputations (or at least, they did). They knew Goldfein was under scrutiny but allowed him to move, in violation of AF policies.

Ditto for Moseley. What are the odds that Thundervision didn't come up during his visit to Ed Shipley's house--you know that weekend when Hal Hornburg just happened to show up? About the same odds that the sun will come up tomorrow morning. Besides, the final IG report (which has not been made public) found enough problems with Moseley's conduct to warrant that "admonishment in retirement."

As you say, if the AF was serious about punishing wrong-doing at the highest levels of service, they would have kept Goldfein at Nellis and taken away a star when he was finally allowed to retire. Funny, but I thought steering a contract to your former boss and his partner was a pretty serious offense--certainly deserved more than the LOR Goldfein received.

As for General Moseley, they could have easily appointed him as a special assistant to the SecDef and given him an office at Fort Meyer and a single airman to answer the phone. Let him sweat it out until the IG finishes his report, and then impose appropriate punishment. Again, the loss of a star would have sent a clear message to the senior officer corps: the era of accountability has finally begun.