Monday, May 12, 2008

Thundervision, Take Two

As expected, The Department of Defense Inspector General has reopened its investigation into the Air Force Thunder Vision contract, with emphasis on the conduct of current and former service officials.

In a letter dated May 2nd, the IG notified the Chairman of the Senate Armed Services that it had reopened its inquiry into the matter. The inspector general's actions came in response to a recent request from the chairman, Michigan Senator Carl Levin, and the panel's ranking Republican, Senator John McCain of Arizona. A copy of the IG letter announcing the new investigation was provided to In From the Cold by Congressional sources.

Levin and McCain asked for another probe of the matter last month, after reviewing the initial report from the inspector general's office. That document detailed a two-year investigation into the contract--dubbed "Thuder Vision"--which covered audio-visual support for the Thunderbirds, the Air Force's precision flying team.

The report detailed attempts by senior officials to steer the contract to a firm with close ties to the service, but it did not reach any findings or recommendations "with regard to the conduct of other, more senior current and former Air Force officials."

Representatives of the IG office refused to speculate on which officials might be the target of the latest inquiry. However, Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee were critical of the Air Force Chief of Staff, General Michael Moseley, who was mentioned in the first report, but not accused on any wrong-doing. The document revealed that General Moseley visited the CEO of the firm that received the contract--just months before it was awarded.

Instead, the IG report implicated five Air Force officials, including Major General Stephen Goldfein, former commander of the Air Warfare Center at Nellis AFB, Nevada. In that post, Goldfein was responsible for both the Thunderbirds and support efforts for the team.

Investigators from the Inspector General's office determined that Goldfein actively attempted to steer the contract to the winning firm, Strategic Message Solutions. After being told that he could not be a member of the selection panel, General Goldfein assumed the role of an advisory, and lobbied heavily for SMS, a Pennsylvania company that included a retired Air Force four-star general, Hal Hornburg, among its partners.

The IG also discovered that Hornburg was present when General Moseley visited the home of Ed Shipley, the CEO of SMS. Moseley and the other participants insist that the Thunderbirds contract never came up during the get-together, which was described as a social event.

But the visit did occur during a one-year "cooling off" period following Hornburg's retirement, a time when he was not supposed to have official contact with Air Force officials. Hornburg also had military ties to Major General Goldfein before leaving active duty. As Commander of Air Combat Command, Hornburg supervised scores of subordinate units and their commanders, including Goldfein and the Air Warfare Center.

As a result of the preliminary IG investigation, Secretary of the Air Force Michael Wynne referred General Goldfein and two other senior officials for administrative action. Two lower-ranking individuals were referred to their chains-of-command for potential punishment.

To date, no criminal charges have been filed in connection with the contract. The U.S. Attorney's Office in Las Vegas declined to prosecute anyone involved in the matter, citing a lack of evidence. It is uncertain if federal prosecutors and the FBI will assist with the latest investigation.

No timeline has been established for completing the new probe. The letter announcing the latest investigation was signed by John Crane, the Assistant Inspector General for Communications and Legislative Liaison.

Investigators began their first look at the Thunderbirds contract in February 2006, after a referral from Mr. Wynne. The referral stemmed from a complaint by another firm that bid on the Thunderbirds project.

As the IG report subsequently revealed, the Air Force awarded the $50 million audio-visual support contract to SMS after extensive lobbying by Goldfein. The "winning" bid was more than twice that of other companies. Pentagon officials later cancelled the contract, after the inspector general's office began its investigation.

The contract called for SMS to provide upgraded video and audio support for the Thunderbirds during air show performances. As part of that plan, the company planned to utilize cameras on the unit's aircraft and on the ground, projecting those images on giant "Jumbotron" video screens. SMS also suggested synchronizing music to maneuvers by the Thunderbirds.

A second inquiry into the Thunder Vision controversy was considered all-but-inevitable, after Senators Levin and McCain submitted their request last month. Air Force magazine's website first reported the new investigation last week, based on information from Pentagon sources. The letter obtained by In From the Cold provides the first, written confirmation that a new probe has begun.

While the new investigation will focus on the conduct of senior officials, it is unclear if the inquiry will extend to related matters, such as the assignment process. This blog reported last week that Major General Goldfein was reassigned twice during the first Thunder Vision probe, moves that may have violated Air Force personnel regulations.

The service's written instruction covering assignments states that personnel are barred from reassignment while under investigation by security forces or the AFOSI. The investigation clause is widely interpreted to mean an inquiry by any investigative organization, military or civilian. Assignments for lower-ranking Air Force members are routinely delayed or cancelled due to investigations.

No comments: