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Air Force Program Built on Earmarks

Clarification Appended

In 2006, the Air Force created a technology development program at a Florida air base with the understanding that it would cost no Air Force money to run. Instead, contractors who would be doing business with the new unit would lobby Congress for the earmarks to support its work.

As then-Maj. Gen. Donald Wurster wrote in an August 2006 memo outlining the project, “Providing a local lab focal point ... leverages industry advocacy for congressional funding to effectively develop solutions.” An Air Force presentation from January 2007 emphasizes that all “core funding” for the project “will be from outside funds.” Wurster is now a lieutenant general and commander of the Air Force Special Operations Command.

The program was jointly conceived and promoted by contractors, lobbyists, military officials and some Congressional staff. At one key meeting at a Pennsylvania resort, a district staff member for Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) endorsed the program and said Murtha would help support it, according to minutes of that meeting obtained by Roll Call.

Defense lobbyists said it is not uncommon for the military to support earmark requests of contractors who are working on projects the Pentagon wants. Several lobbyists cite the Predator unmanned aircraft as an example of a program that was built by earmarks instead of by the military’s arcane procurement process, which can take years to complete.

But it is not Pentagon policy to support earmarks, and several lobbyists said it would be astounding to find military officials putting in writing any promise to support earmarks.

But it seems that the Air Force did just that with the Center for Battlefield Airman Tactical Targeting, or CBATT, which was intended to serve as the home for a series of research and development projects geared toward bringing new communications technologies to the battlefield.

The Air Force’s own documentation indicates that it was hoping to generate more than $40 million worth of earmarks to fund the program, but the project collapsed soon after it was launched when the lead contracting officer was accused of contracting to companies that he partly owned — and profiting from the transactions.

The officer, Mark O’Hair, has been indicted along with one of the contractors, Richard Schaller, though O’Hair has vigorously denied the allegations. In a February 2008 memo to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), O’Hair argued that he was being railroaded by his bosses who wanted control of the millions of dollars in earmarks that the project was going to generate. O’Hair described it as “a hostile campaign to prevent small companies that lobby Congress from receiving their advocacies.”

Schaller’s attorney, Bert Oram, said his client denies the charges and “requests assistance from anybody who may have information that might be helpful in obtaining evidence that would disprove the charges.”

Schaller and O’Hair were leading advocates of the new program, which would allow the military to more rapidly deploy communications systems that would allow for improved targeting and response on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, according to documents describing the venture.

The plan was also to include other federal agencies that might be able to use the same technologies — such as wildland firefighters, who could use lightweight communications equipment when they parachute into fire events.

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