It was December 2007, and Kirtland Air Force Base needed money. The base wanted to build training facilities for paratroopers and combat rescue officers. In total, the project would cost more than $14 million—funded mostly by appropriations from Congress. US Rep. Heather Wilson, R-NM, was instrumental in helping Kirtland secure the funding, earmarking $3.7 million for the new facilities.
Sens. Pete Domenici (R) and Jeff Bingaman (D) helped, too. But it was Wilson who, one year after leaving Congress, took a seat on the board of the Kirtland Partnership Committee, a nonprofit that operates as a booster organization for the base.
“We’re here to support Kirtland Air Force base,” says Stuart Purviance, executive director of KPC, which, he says, is not “officially connected” to the base. Wilson, he says, still serves on the 109-member board, which meets twice a year.
It’s one of Wilson’s many forays into the private sector since leaving the House of Representatives in 2009. Her latest financial disclosure report shows that, from 2009-2011, Wilson capitalized on her national security expertise by scoring consulting contracts with national laboratories and defense contractors.
Such work—sometimes termed a “revolving door” because of the close relationships forged between members of Congress and the lobbyists, contractors and businesses that work with them—occupies an ethical gray area. Wilson has stopped working with all but one of them since starting her campaign for US Senate—a decision Jay Coghlan, executive director of Nuclear Watch New Mexico, says might remove the “taint of being a direct conflict of interest.”
“But it nevertheless shows where her true interests lay: with her laboratories and not the interests of the people of New Mexico,” he says. “...[Wilson] should release records of her financial relationship with the laboratories since she has taken it upon herself to be such an advocate of the laboratories.”
“Wasteful Government Spending”
“The polls will go up and down, but Heather is going to win this race because she’s the only candidate New Mexicans can trust to stop wasteful government spending,” Wilson’s campaign spokesman, Chris Sanchez, told the Washington, DC-based National Journal in August.
Her opponent in the Senate race, Democratic US Rep. Martin Heinrich, has occupied Wilson’s seat since she left Congress. TV ads paid for by Crossroads GPS—a conservative group affiliated with former George W Bush operative Karl Rove—have characterized Heinrich as a profligate spender of government money. But Wilson, who once sat on the Crossroads board, has faced similar criticism.
Facing off in a debate against Steve Pearce in the 2008 GOP primaries, Wilson used her opening statement to criticize Pearce for voting for cuts in DOE programs—thus, cuts in New Mexico’s sacred cow, the national labs. Pearce, who won the primary, countered that he didn’t feel ashamed for saying ‘no’ to wasteful spending, including $400 million that would have went to a “metalized glass” program and money for “oyster beds.”
“It doesn’t mean cut Los Alamos,” he said in a statement. “It means cut the wasteful spending.”
John Isaacs, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, tells SFR that whichever candidate is elected to the US Senate seat will likely be “sympathetic” to the labs.
“It’s a very rare politician who opposes a major contract in his state,” he says. “Especially smaller states like New Mexico…Anything that produces a lot of jobs.”
Isaacs adds that it would be “useful” to know what kind of contracting work Wilson did at the labs, saying of candidates: “Their background, on work on family and finances—and so on—should be transparent as possible.”
SFR analyzed federal financial disclosure reports for each candidate. On his latest report, Heinrich disclosed no income from sources outside of his current congressional salary and investment holdings.
Wilson, by contrast, lists a web of income sources, including rent payments from a condo in Washington, DC, valued at $1 million and various investments. In addition, she listed several contracts with defense companies and national laboratories.
Wilson’s disclosure forms show only that she made at least $5,000 from each of the contracts. Neither Sanchez nor the entities that hired Wilson provided detailed amounts, with one exception: Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee.
But SFR was able to uncover some details about Wilson’s private-sector work—as well as her employers’ stakes in the estimated $530 billion government-contracting pool.
Areté Asssociates (Arlington, Va.): $228.6 million in federal contracts (2001-2012)
For most of her professional life, Wilson has pursued work in the opaque world of defense and national security. A US Air Force Academy graduate, Wilson used a Rhodes Scholarship to study at the University of Oxford, and later earned a PhD in international relations. A book on liberation movements won her a prize from the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1988, when she served as the director for European Defense Policy and Arms Control for the National Security Council.
John Lauder, a vice president at Areté, which produces lasers for the defense industry, recalls “intercepting” with Wilson in the early ’90s, when she was on the NSC staff and he worked on arms control monitoring for the Central Intelligence Agency.
In 1991, Wilson founded Albuquerque-based Keystone International Inc., which “did work for large defense and scientific firms, including our national labs, and she went back to that type of work when she left the Congress,” Sanchez writes in an email.
Keystone’s website says the company, which has 200 employees, provides “technical support” to weapons laboratories in New Mexico and Nevada. The website credits Wilson as “instrumental” in helping Martin Marietta secure a contract with the US Department of Energy to manage Sandia National Laboratories.
Martin Marietta later became Lockheed Martin—the defense contractor that now manages Sandia, and has been Wilson’s top contributor during her political career. From 1998-2012, Lockheed and its employees have donated at least $109,000 to Wilson’s various campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Although Wilson’s disclosure form shows that Areté paid her at least $5,000 for “consulting services,” Lauder says Areté only invited her to a meeting to talk about her availability. The company was interested in getting Wilson’s “advice and counsel on the sorts of things we ought to be focused on,” he says, but nothing came of the discussions.
“We invited her in and paid for her time and travel and gave her some briefings,” Lauder says. Wilson’s Senate campaign put a halt to the plans.
“Once you start running a political life, we didn’t pursue that to make sure there were no conflict[s] of interest or anything,” Lauder says.
Battelle Memorial Institute (Columbus, Oh.): $15.6 billion in federal contracts (2001-2012)
Wilson is, however, still listed as a consultant at Battelle, according to spokeswoman Katy Delany, who says the consulting agreement “would end if she wins election to the Senate.” Battelle won’t say exactly how much Wilson has been paid, but Delany says she serves on the Strategic Advisory Committee for Battelle’s National Security Global Business—“basically a group of experts from academia, industry, government” that advises Battelle on “certain issues.”
James Bellingham, whose ocean robotics company, Bluefin Robotics Corp., was purchased by Battelle, says he’s been on the committee since 2007 and that the group meets a few times a year to discuss “more big-picture perspectives.” “We’re supposed to be looking at the longer term, big-picture: Is Battelle structuring itself in the right way?” he says. “It’s not a large group. Mostly people with tremendous success in some prior phase of their life.”
“And, of course, Heather [Wilson] has her background in Washington,” he adds. “Any business [that] is working in part in the government market has to think about what are likely to be pretty dramatic changes coming ahead.”
National Security Technologies LLC (near Las Vegas, Nev.; satellite locations in New Mexico): $3.2 billion in federal contracts (2006-2012)
According to Sanchez, Wilson was a member of the “President’s Advisory Panel” for the Nevada nuclear test site. Wilson’s disclosure form lists at least $5,000 from National Securities Technologies, a government contractor that operates the nuclear test site.
“The panel, made up of senior national security experts, advises and assists the senior leadership of the Test Site on strategic planning, mission development and program assessment,” Sanchez writes.
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Oak Ridge, Tenn.): $1 billion federal budget request, FY 2013*
“We’re not in the business of causing troubles with reporters,” Ron Walli, a spokesman at Oak Ridge, says. “We don’t have much, if anything, to hide.”
UT-Battelle LLC, the private entity that manages Oak Ridge, owns two subcontracts with Wilson, according to Walli, who says she earned a total of $8,413.69 for work with a strategic advisory group to advise Oak Ridge’s Global Security Directorate.
“Heather Wilson’s duties included interacting with other members of the SAG to review, assess and advise on the quality of the national security programs being pursued and carried out at Oak Ridge National Laboratory,” Walli writes in an email.
Sanchez adds that Wilson “helped Oak Ridge National Laboratory establish a senior advisory group on intelligence.”
But ORNL has, at times, competed with Los Alamos National Laboratory for federal funds. Last spring, DOE requested that Congress delay appropriations for the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement Nuclear Facility at LANL, a plutonium lab, whose cost overruns have reached billions, and instead recommended funding a uranium processing facility at ORNL. Wilson told the Los Alamos Monitor that LANL lost funding “because the delegation from Tennessee fought harder, and New Mexico did not.”
“At a time when Los Alamos National Laboratory was facing major federal budget cuts, Heather Wilson was getting paid thousands of dollars from [ORNL], which competed with LANL for funding and jobs,” Heinrich campaign spokeswoman Whitney Potter writes in a statement.
Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory (NM): $1.4 billion (Sandia), $1.9 billion (LANL) in federal budget requests, FY 2013*
“Our statement is short and sweet,” Jim Danneskiold, a Sandia spokesman, told SFR in a voicemail. “Heather Wilson had a consulting contract with Sandia National Laboratories from 2009 to 2011 and that terminated when she ran for Senate.”
He didn’t respond to SFR’s requests for clarification, but spokeswoman Heather Clark forwarded SFR a guidance statement from the DOE’s Office of Classification, citing an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act for “trade secrets and commercial or financial information...that would cause substantial competitive harm to the source or to the program effectiveness if disclosed.” It’s unclear whether SFR’s request would cause “substantial competitive harm” to Wilson as an individual or to her company, Heather Wilson & Company LLC (or, for that matter, to the lab itself), because Sandia officials didn’t say whether the contract was under Wilson’s name or that of her company.
“That’s disclosing information that’s in the contract and that’s commercial and propriety,” Clark tells SFR.
“Wilson served on the Intelligence Advisory Panel for Sandia National Labs and worked closely with the Sandia Field Intelligence Element on its programs and plans,” Sanchez writes in an email. He also writes that Wilson also “provided advice to senior managers at Los Alamos on strategic direction for both the nuclear deterrence and stewardship mission, as well as Los Alamos threat reduction programs.”
Fred deSousa, a LANL spokesman, writes in an email that “Contract terms with vendors and consultants routinely are treated as sensitive, proprietary information.”
“Our contractors are partners in our successes, often in highly technical and competitive fields,” the statement reads. “Disclosing competitive information would severely hamper our abilities to attract these vendors—many of them from New Mexico or Northern New Mexico—and would increase costs for taxpayers. If you asked about our contract with anyone else, the answer would be same.”
But Mark Caramanica, the freedom of information director at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, is skeptical. “That’s a real stretch of what exemption four can cover,” Caramanica says. “How is the public supposed to know what they’re buying if they can’t determine what the service is? That makes it hard to know what you’re getting and if you’re paying too much for it.”
“This is Heather Wilson”
When SFR called a number listed under Heather Wilson & Co. LLC, a consulting firm of which Wilson has been president since January 2009, it got an unexpected surprise.
“This is Heather Wilson,” the former congresswoman answered.
Public records list Wilson’s company as either a consulting or a public-relations firm. She disclosed making $214,000 income from the company. Beyond that, little about the firm has been made public.
On the phone, Wilson wouldn’t comment on her consulting work, nor her board membership on several organizations between her leaving Congress in 2009 and running for office in 2012. Instead, she deferred all questions to her spokesman, Christopher Sanchez.
*Lab budget numbers may not be exact, as they refer to requested appropriations, not actual ones.
Joey Peters contributed reporting.