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Private Groups Foot the Bill for Pentagon Travel

Image has not been found. URL: /wp-content/uploads/2009/06/000825-f-6184m-037.jpgBoeing, which makes the F15-E Strike Eagle jet, funded travel for at least 37 Pentagon officials between 1998 and 2007. (Air Force photo)

The drudgery of military life can be difficult to overcome at times, and so it can be helpful to decamp to new and exotic locations to break the routine. And when travel opportunities are work-related, it can take an abstemious person to resist temptation. An Army major and Walter Reed Army Medical Center doctor named Jerome Buller understandably left the dreariness of late February in Washington in 2006 for a meeting on female urology in the Bahamas, held in the city of Freeport, where the weather hovers around the high 70s that time of year.

Nationalsecurity1.jpg
Nationalsecurity1.jpg

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

The cost for Buller’s five-day Bahamanian meeting, according to a trove of Pentagon travel documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity, was $2,699. The bill, however, was footed by the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, a non-profit that supports advancements in military medicine and receives funding from, among other sources, the Defense Department. Walter Reed’s communications department did not respond for comment. Everything about both Buller’s trip and the Foundation’s sponsorship of his travel is entirely legal, as a recent Pentagon memorandum on travel benefits affirms, and it would be hard to find some kind of quid pro quo at a medical conference. But the trip is an example of the hand-in-glove relationship between private organizations that do business with the Department of Defense and the department’s employees — where, to the concern of watchdog organizations, private interests frequently open their wallets to foot the travel costs of Pentagon officials, uniformed officers and department-funded civilians in order to maintain good relationships with the Pentagon.

Boeing, for instance, is one of the largest of all U.S. defense contractors, earning billions annually from a myriad of Pentagon contracts. According to the Center for Public Integrity’s newly created online database of Pentagon travel documents, Boeing paid for at least 37 officials’ travel expenses to various locations between 1998 and 2007, including a trip by seven enlisted airmen to the 2002 Asian Aerospace 2002 Airshow in Singapore. The total cost of the trip: $12,278. Boeing produces numerous aircraft for the Air Force, including the F-15E Strike Eagle and, along with Lockheed Martin, the F-22 fighter jet that Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently canceled.

“They’re sowing seeds,” said defense reform advocate Winslow Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information of contractors who foot the bill for junior officers’ and enlisted men and women’s travel. “Some of these lieutenants and captains will be colonels and above, and they want to make sure they’ve got their hands in their pockets.”

The permissible rules also extend to foreign governments engaged in defense-based diplomacy. The Saudi Ministry of Defense and Aviation, for instance, spent $9,162 to send an Army lieutenant colonel on a training trip to four locations within the U.S. in late 2005. The Chinese Ministry of Defense paid $7,650 in course expenses for a U.S. Navy captain to attend the 2001 Symposium on Asia-Pacific Security in Beijing.

A 2008 memorandum, prepared by the Standards of Conduct Office within the Pentagon’s Office of General Counsel, places few restrictions on trips Defense Department employees can accept from outside organizations. According to the memorandum, a “travel-approving authority” must affirm that “payment is for attendance at a meeting, conference, seminar, speaking engagement, symposium, training course, or receipt of an award or honorary degree related to official duties.” Payment can’t be accepted for an event in which “the primary purpose is marketing the non-Federal source’s products or services.” The approving authority has to certify that “a reasonable person with knowledge of all the relevant facts” would not be able to use the travel payment “to question the integrity of the Government’s programs or operations.” Cash is not an acceptable form of payment.

Ethics rules restricting congressional travel paid for by lobbyists — or organizations employing lobbyists, such as Boeing — are significantly more cumbersome. The Washington Independent’s Mike Lillis reports here on the discrepancies between congressional and Pentagon travel rules. Travel scandals ensnared several prominent members of Congress during the past decade, including former House Republican leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

But the rules for Pentagon travel payments haven’t received the same scrutiny. “The idea is that if you’re a member of the executive branch you aren’t pulling the purse stings,” said Laura Peterson, a national security investigator for Taxpayers for Common Sense. “You’re in a position to draw up strategy and request money, therefore you should be more immune from outside influence. But I don’t think that’s borne out in reality.” Members of the military services at senior levels routinely press members of Congress to draw up budgets that suit the services’ interests and desires, particularly when it comes to military procurement, which is a multi-billion dollar annual industry. “Anyone trying to influence the spending process will try to influence every step of the process, and that includes [influencing] the Pentagon,” Peterson continued.

Several prominent military officers and civilian officials have benefited from the permissibility of Pentagon travel rules. Adm. James Stavridis, recently tapped to become NATO Supreme Allied Commander, had the $2,100 tab picked up by Milbank & Tweed for delivering a speech at the financial services law firm’s February 2007 partners meeting. The Chinese government spent $3,600 so Adm. Dennis Blair could tour China for a week in 2001 when the Obama administration’s director of national intelligence led U.S. Pacific Command. The Association for Enterprise Integration, which boosts tech-based partnerships between industry and government, paid $550 in April 2004 so the then-head of U.S. Joint Forces Command, Adm. Edmund Giambastiani, could attend a Vienna, Va., conference on tech-enhanced warfare.

“Capitol Hill is notorious for its lax rules, and the Pentagon isn’t even using that standard,” said Wheeler of the Center for Defense Information, a former longtime congressional staffer. “Does it not bother Pentagon managers that future field-grade officers are being transported by defense manufacturers? You’d think in a strictly ethical system that would be against the rules.”

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