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Not Even a Fig Leaf: The Blatant Self-Dealing of Chairman McKeon

Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon has taken self-dealing to new heights.

Part of the Series

In past years, it has not been surprising that the chairmen of the House of Representatives of the Armed Services Committee have taken many large campaign contributions from defense contractors. It has happened through many sessions of Congress and included both Republican and Democratic chairmen. So, an article on the current chairman of the Armed Services Committee taking campaign contributions from defense contractors would seem to be an obvious and redundant read.

However, Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-California) has taken self-dealing to new heights and is having those same contractors contribute to his wife’s campaign for the California legislature. The explanations from his wife’s campaign flack and the contractors would be funny if it weren’t so brazen.

McKeon has risen quickly into major leadership in the House as a close friend of Speaker John Boehner. When he assumed the chair of the Armed Services Committee in January 2011, he had already been receiving larger-than-average contributions from defense companies such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon and General Dynamics. He has one of the highest amounts of campaign contributions from defense contractors.

McKeon has also been a major protector of the defense budget, complaining bitterly about the first round of cuts, which were really just cuts in the increase of the defense budget, and has gone almost apoplectic over the specter of deeper cuts as outlined in the sequestration budget. He is also a major defender of failing weapons with immense efforts recently to protect the plague-prone and prohibitively expensive F-35 fighter, which just failed one of its test flights again on Monday due to a fuel leak. The financial management of the plane by Lockheed has also become so bad that the Department of Defense (DoD) has taken the unusual step of withholding some of Lockheed’s monthly payments on the F-35, about a million dollars a month or 2 percent of the billings, until Lockheed fixes the problem.

The F-35, built by Lockheed Martin, has had a dreadful procurement process with both technical and monetary problems for over a decade, but McKeon has been a staunch defender through it all. He is also falling on his sword for other notoriously flawed weapons in other areas of the Pentagon.

Enter Patricia McKeon, Buck’s wife. She has been his campaign treasurer for years and is one of the highest-paid Congressional wives. She is 70 years old and touts her role as a mother of six and a grandmother of 31. She proudly lists her background as head of the PTA and involvement in the Boy Scouts. She now has declared her candidacy for the 38th District of the California Assembly. She said that she was inspired to run after being outraged that Los Angeles plans to tax a 10-cent charge on plastic grocery bags.
Well it turns out that many of our major defense contractors are also outraged over this tax on plastic bags and/or other regulations that might be rattling around the California State Assembly. These major companies have given this first-time candidate around 45 percent of her campaign money so far. From Government Executive:

The defense sector and its advocates in the corridors of the US Capitol have poured thousands of dollars into the race, fueling the first-time candidacy of Patricia McKeon. Many of those giving money also have business before her husband’s powerful panel.

All told, Patricia McKeon raised about $75,000 for her California Assembly bid in the fourth quarter of 2011 from sources beyond her husband and from personal contributions. More than 45 percent of that money – roughly $35,000 – came from federal lobbyists, lobbying firms, and their employees, as well as military contractors and executives in firms in the defense and aerospace sectors, according to an analysis of state and federal campaign records.

Patricia McKeon’s donors include some of the biggest contractors in the multibillion-dollar defense industry: Lockheed Martin ($3,000), Boeing ($1,000), Raytheon ($2,000), and General Dynamics ($3,900). Each of those firms ranked among the nation’s five biggest defense contractors in 2010, according to Government Executive, with a combined $85 billion in sales.

Most of her corporate donors also give heavily to her husband.

Patricia is also getting help from some of her husband’s staff according to the West Ranch

Patricia McKeon has never held public office but has been a driving force behind the political career of her husband Buck McKeon. She has had a lot of support from her husband already with his local political operative and Deputy Chief of Staff Bob Haueter working behind the scenes. Haueter has been making calls and visiting individuals to help build or shore up support for Patricia.

The plot thickens because Buck McKeon’s former staff aide, Scott Wilk, is one of the main candidates running against his wife for the California Assembly seat. A complaint that the Congressman got preferential treatment for a loan from the notorious Countrywide mortgage company was recently referred to the House Ethics Committee and, according to Roll Call, Buck pulled out all the stops to protect himself and his wife:

When House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) became ensnared by the Countrywide mortgage scandal last month, his senior staff came together for a strategy session to decide how to throw colleagues, potential challengers and former employees under the bus.

McKeon is one of four members referred to by the House Ethics Committee to discern whether Countrywide provided preferential treatment to influential lawmakers through an exclusive loan program.

McKeon’s communications director drafted a memo – “a recap of current strategy call” – and addressed it to Chief of Staff Bob Cochran, Deputy Chief of Staff Bob Haueter and political consultant Tony Marsh. The memo included a reference to a California state Assembly race that pits a former McKeon staffer, Wilk, against McKeon’s wife, Patricia. Wilk previously worked as McKeon’s press secretary and later his district director. According to the memo, McKeon’s strategy should include “thorough background checks into the relationships between Wilk, [Wilk’s political consultant, Jason Cable] Roe, and their recent shady political connections.”

When asked for comment, Wilk replied: “Well, you [have] got to remember this Assembly seat and his new Congressional seat are all in the same area…. Mr. McKeon has been catching some grief from the right.”

McKeon has other potential problems but this co-mingling of his wife’s run for office with help from his staff and the defense contractors’ sudden concern about Los Angeles plastic bag tax is unusually shameless. I dutifully called the four largest DoD company contributors, Lockheed, Boeing, Raytheon and General Dynamics, for comment. The General Dynamics corporate spokesman, Kendall Pease, told me that his company is concerned about regulations in California and they contributed to Patricia McKeon’s campaign because she could do something about regulations in California. That statement sounded familiar and it was because I had read about it before, albeit as a statement from her press person, which matched Pease’s theory of why they, as a large defense company, would care about a State Legislature campaign. Turns out that another former staff member of McKeon’s, Andre Hollings, also wrote an unflattering guest column in West Ranch, quoting her press person’s pretzeled logic on why she got the contributions:

Many will say, with Mrs. McKeon’s spokesperson Joe Justin’s wounded pretense, that defense firms view her as the “best positioned candidate” to effect regulatory reform in California. And it is “demeaning” to her to assert otherwise.

I asked the General Dynamic spokesperson if he really was asserting that what Patricia’s husband did had nothing to do with their contribution and it was their company’s concern about regulations in California. I wanted to give him a chance to back off of a statement that doesn’t pass the laugh test and perhaps he would want to have some type of fig leaf of admission to the obvious. He grew quiet and then said that he would get back to me before the deadline. I did not hear from him after contacting him again by email and phone.

Raytheon decided that they would not comment at all. Boeing also did not get back to me as promised after several contacts. Lockheed gave me the following statement, which doesn’t even touch the question I asked about if they gave to her campaign because of her husband’s job:

“Lockheed Martin supports a wide range of federal, state and local political leaders based on their level of interest and commitment in national security, homeland security, and other issues of importance to the corporation including education and technology. In our experience, we’ve never seen a more problematic economic and global security environment in the US and in so many economies around the world. That means the political leaders around the globe, and especially here at home, are going to have to make some very tough decisions. In this environment, there are many voices being raised, particularly in an election year, and we believe it is critical to have our voice heard on issues that are important to our future. Some of the issues that we have a strong interest in include national security, homeland security, export control, job growth programs, math and science education and technology development. With 82% of our company’s sales derived from US government customers, we naturally have interactions with virtually every standing committee in the United States Congress who has oversight authority over the budgets and policies of all Federal agencies and by extension the products and services that Lockheed Martin provides to them.”

I also the Lockheed spokesman again to try to get a quote that was on point to the issues I asked him, but he stuck like glue to his original Byzantine quote.

This is self-dealing at its worse. Chairman McKeon is blatantly using his paid Congressional staff to help his wife’s campaign, and his wife is accepting contributions from major defense contractors under the ridiculous guise that they are interested in her and her Assembly race because of regulations. All of them, including the defense contractors, expect the public to believe that this has nothing to do with McKeon’s incredible influence of the money that is going to their companies. They don’t even try for a fig leaf, and don’t seem to care at all that this does not pass the laugh test. They have their lobbyists and deals in place and know that the Congress won’t do anything, and the public will be irate for a short time until the next self dealing scandal emerges … the public has had so much of this without consequence that they are just shrugging their shoulders.

This is deeply cynical behavior for all concerned in this sad tale of self-dealing because they don’t really care what the public thinks as they don’t believe that there will be any consequences. And the sad part about it is that they are right. I don’t know if McKeon will get in trouble in the Countrywide loan probe but, at the very least, there should be some outrage over using staff, paid with tax dollars, to help with his wife’s California Assembly campaign.

The complete disregard of the true reasons for the campaign contributions by the defense contractors to her campaign to influence her husband is nothing short of a back-door bribe. As I quoted from Jack Abramoff’s book “Capitol Punishment” in last week’s column:

What I did not consider then and never considered until I was sitting in prison, was that contributions from parties with an interest in legislation are really nothing but bribes. Sure, it’s legal for the most part. Sure, everyone in Washington does it. Sure it’s the way the system works. It’s one of Washington’s dirty little secrets – but it’s bribery just the same….

This is the same bribery, just one step removed from any laws by channeling money to his wife for the same favors.

We have a lot of investigation and change in the laws needed to start changing this and to convince the public that this type of public bribery should not be any part of our government system.

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