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Group files IG complaint against acting defense secretary, cites potential ethics violations

Acting U.S. Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan speaks during a Missile Defense Review in the Pentagon Auditorium, Washington, D.C., Jan. 17, 2019. (Tech Sgt. Vernon Young Jr./Department of Defense)

A government watchdog organization on Wednesday filed a complaint charging acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan might have broken ethics rules including using his public position to benefit his former employer, Boeing.

A group called Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, or CREW, asked the Defense Department Inspector General to determine whether Shanahan had violated his own ethics pledge to recuse himself from matters concerning Boeing, the massive aerospace firm where Shanahan worked for 30 years before joining the Pentagon in 2017. CREW is a prominent nonpartisan government watchdog group based in Washington.

The complaint alleges Shanahan has promoted Boeing products to his subordinates and disparaged the company’s competitors, including Lockheed Martin, which was chosen over Boeing to build the F-35 Lightning II advanced fighter jet.

Shanahan, 56, was named acting defense secretary by President Donald Trump on Jan. 1 after serving as the Pentagon’s No. 2 under former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis since July 2017. He had previously worked at Boeing since 1986, working on military-related programs as well as commercial aviation. He was serving as the company’s senior vice president for supply chain and operations when he left to work at the Pentagon.

Shanahan is considered by Pentagon officials to be among the top contenders to be nominated for the permanent defense secretary job. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said this week that she could not confirm Shanahan would be nominated, but she added Trump “likes him.”

In the CREW complaint, the group called Shanahan’s alleged behavior “extremely disturbing,” writing the acting Pentagon chief has been accused multiple times in news stories of praising Boeing in private meetings and disparaging Lockheed Martin, particularly about the F-35, the Pentagon’s most expensive program ever and one that has been plagued by performance problems and delays.

“Ethics rules make clear that government employees cannot abuse their offices to promote a private company, much less work on official matters involving their former employer,” Noah Bookbinder, CREW’s executive director, said in a statement.

A spokesman for Shanahan denied any wrongdoing.

“Secretary Shanahan has at all times remained committed to complying [with] his Ethics Agreement, which screens Boeing matters to another DOD official and ensures no potential for a conflict of interest with Boeing on any matter,” said Army Lt. Col. Joe Buccino, Shanahan’s spokesman.

The complaint comes one day after the Pentagon unveiled its budget request for fiscal year 2020 to Congress. That budget request includes the purchase of eight Boeing-built F-15EX fighter jets for some $1.1 billion. It also includes plans to buy an additional 72 of those jets through the next five years.

It marks the first purchase of F-15 aircraft by the Pentagon since 2001, raising concerns among some analysts. The Bloomberg news organization reported in December that the decision to purchase the F-15 aircraft, fourth-generation fighters, instead of using the money to buy additional F-35s was made “with some prodding” by Shanahan. That report cited unnamed officials.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson as recently as September told reporters that she preferred not to purchase new fourth-generation fighter aircraft.

However, top Air Force officials on Wednesday defended the purchase to lawmakers during a hearing before the Senate subcommittee on defense appropriations. Air Force Gen. David Goldfein, the service’s chief of staff, told lawmakers that the F-15EX was simply “the most affordable option” to quickly replace F-15C models that would soon be deemed not worthy to fly. Another Air Force official said the ultimate decision to purchase F-15Cs was made by Mattis before he resigned.

In its complaint, CREW wrote “Shanahan appears to have participated in the decision to include more than $1 billion in federal funds in the 2020 budget cycle for the [F-15EX] fighter aircraft,” and they could find no evidence that he had received a waiver allowing him to work on any projects from which Boeing could benefit.

“Government resources should be used for public purposes, not to promote or denigrate any private business,” Bookbinder wrote in the complaint, which he signed. “Furthermore, as Mr. Shanahan’s ethical commitments make clear, he cannot and should not be involved with any [Defense Department] matters involving his former employer Boeing without an authorization or waiver.”


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