Heather Wilson Gets the Last Word

November 18th, 2013 · No Comments · open government, Uncategorized, Washington

By Denise Tessier

The Albuquerque Journal was generous in giving one-time New Mexico congresswoman Heather Wilson a forum to explain further her $10,000-a-month contract from Sandia National Laboratories, a lucrative deal in which money started accruing to Wilson the day after she left office.

Wilson was given a good part of the Nov. 11 Journal Op-Ed page to explain again her compliance with House ethics rules on such work via her column “Congress’ Rules Do Address Conflicts.”

I say “explain again” because she already had been given plenty of space to tell her side in James Monteleone’s “From Congress to contract: Heather Wilson says 10K per month Sandia Labs deal met ethics rules,” an in-depth report that ran in the Journal Nov. 3. That story included multiple quotes from Wilson, both from a telephone interview Monteleone conducted with the former congresswoman and follow-up comments from her by email.

Wilson had plenty of ink in Monteleone’s story, and her position was reiterated when Monteleone did a follow-up Nov. 9 focusing on Sandia Labs’ take on Wilson’s contract. (This story, “Sandia says Wilson contract in public interest,”  explained that Monteleone’s Nov. 3 story lacked information directly from the labs because “Lab officials did not receive the emails seeking comment due to a technical problem involving communication between servers at the lab and the Albuquerque Publishing Co. Lab officials were not aware the Journal was working on the story until it was published.”)

Sandia and Wilson basically corroborated each other, leading to the Journal’s editorial on Nov. 6, “If Wilson followed rules, then rules need changing.” From the editorial:

If the rule is intended to clearly show whom exiting lawmakers will be getting money from, it fails. If the intent is to prevent lawmakers from immediately profiting from people or companies that stood to gain from their votes while in office, it is inadequate.

Congress, in the interest of preventing perceptions of improprieties, should amend its rules so it’s clear what lucrative deals are on the table as its members get ready for life outside of office.

The editorial’s walk-off line:

Then again, “pretend” disclosure on feathering one’s nest might just be one of those rare examples of bipartisan harmony.

From the gist of her column, it was this editorial and likely this last line that led Wilson to think she needed further defense, because the editorial had already said:

No one has disputed her interpretation, making one thing clear: Congress should change the rules.

The story on which that editorial was based was a well-done follow-up by Monteleone to stories he had done back in June, including, “Federal report slams Wilson work for labs.” The report then was that Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory had repaid to the federal government about $422,000 they had paid Wilson for work that, according to a Department of Energy inspector general report, was possibly prohibited lobbying, and work the labs had failed to properly back up with documentation.

That story raised questions, and then-state Sen. Dede Feldman spelled them out in a blog post she did for New Mexico Mercury July 2, saying:

Wilson, now the president of the South Dakota School of Mining and Technology, was not ordered to repay the money and the labs insist that they got good value for her work. Just a problem with documentation, they said.

Whether taxpayers and former constituents were well served is an open question. It is unknown whether the DOE Inspector General has referred the report to the Justice Department for investigation of possible illegal activity.

It’s to Monteleone’s credit that since filing stories in June he obtained contract agreements in order to determine the origins and dates of Wilson’s contract with Sandia, and his story was accompanied by a timeline. As the Journal editorial indicates, his story pointed out that Wilson could say she had followed House ethics rules by disclosing that she was going to work for Wilson and Co. – but, because there is no requirement that she disclose her clientele – she could do so without mentioning that she was going to work for the national laboratories for which she had advocated as a congresswoman.

It doesn’t answer Feldman’s question as to “whether taxpayers and former constituents were well served,” although Sandia’s spokesman told Monteleone in an email:

The contract was beneficial to Sandia’s mission and the public. Sandia engaged with Wilson based on her broad knowledge and unique expertise on national security and intelligence issues and knowledge of Sandia’s missions. Her independent advice was valuable and helped Sandia meet its obligation to the nation to better understand and anticipate rapidly shifting national security challenges.

And it’s unlikely the DOE Inspector General has referred the report to the Justice Department for investigation of possible illegal activity – Feldman’s other question – because Monteleone would have mentioned it.

The Weekly Alibi, in its Nov. 7 “Crib Notes” feature, called Monteleone’s Sunday Journal follow-up “an old-fashioned, copyrighted, above-the-fold piece of investigative journalism.” I think that description sums it up.

 

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