Sauer Grapes: Do the Lockheed and McCain Dots Connect?

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Photo by Scott J. Ferrell / Congressional Quarterly / Getty Images

In this 1998 photograph, Ann Sauer (left), then Sen. John McCain's legislative director, meets with staffers as their boss speaks on the Senate floor.

Senator John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and the Lockheed Martin Corp. have been behaving in ways that parallel one another.

That could be explained by their common political objectives, or by a separate action by McCain — the rehiring of former staffer-turned-Lockheed-exec Ann Sauer — that was only recently uncovered by some watchdogs. The time has come to start asking some questions.

All week, McCain has been campaigning with Senators Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) in Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and (sans Graham) New Hampshire to protect the defense budget from additional cuts.

In Florida, Senator Graham, as reported, went deep into the political cesspool to threaten Florida voters that they would lose MacDill Air Force Base and untold jobs in Florida if the cuts occur.

All three senators have made it abundantly clear they are talking about the $492 billion the national defense budget will lose over nine years if the previously enacted “sequestration” were to occur as scheduled by the Budget Control Act on January 2, 2013.

The Lockheed-Martin Corporation has also made itself a highly active leader in the anti-sequestration campaign. Its activity has been mostly, but not entirely, focused on the WARN Act’s requirement that workers be notified 60 days in advance of layoffs.

By Lockheed’s calculations, this would mean that the January 2, 2013 date for the initiation of sequestration would mean a warning of pink slips to thousands of its own employees just before the November elections.

While the Labor Department has recently announced that no such WARN Act notices are required as both sequestration itself and its resultant layoffs are not yet specifically foreseeable, Lockheed seems determined to tell the country that thousands of workers will have to be warned of lost jobs in the first week of November.

If Congress intercedes with a lifting of the sequester requirement, as Lockheed and McCain both seek, there would, of course, be no need for the politically inflammatory job loss warnings.

McCain chimed in at the kick off to his anti-sequestration tour in Florida: “These cuts — which I would just call downright draconian — are set to affect close to $3.6 billion in the state of Florida alone…We’re looking at $1 trillion in cuts to national defense. That is unacceptable…If we allow these to go through and the budget is slashed, it will have a devastating impact on our children and grandchildren.”

Last week, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO, which is the umbrella organization I work under) and ProPublica reported that earlier this year McCain had re-hired a former staffer, Ann E. Sauer.

As reported, Sauer left McCain’s staff as legislative director in 2000 and went to work for defense contractor Lockheed-Martin until 2011. The new job that McCain offered and that Sauer accepted in early 2102 was as Director of the Minority [Republican] Staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

POGO and ProPublica also informed us that on February 21, 2012, Sauer reported on a Senate Ethics Committee financial disclosure form that she received $660,390.00 as salary, bonus and a voluntary early separation payment, plus $769,594.00 as “deferred comp[ensation]” and $232,872.00 as “retired pay” and a lump sum payment.

All from Lockheed-Martin. The total amounts to $1,662,856.00.

There was no report, or even implication, of illegal activity; none of the reports claim Sauer or McCain have violated any law, and from what I know about Senate ethics rules as a former staffer, that is correct. Moreover, McCain’s spokesman went to pains to explain it is all on the up and up.

In the past, McCain and Lockheed have not to my knowledge acted in concert, and he has raised legitimate questions about Lockheed acquisition practices and its military products. However, the seeming parallel activity by McCain and Lockheed prompts unavoidable questions:

— As Senate Armed Services Committee Minority Staff Director, did Ms. Sauer interact with both McCain and Lockheed in any manner to recommend, facilitate, or plan for the McCain anti-sequestration tour or to advise or interact with the Lockheed layoff notification campaign?

— Is there any coordination between the two efforts, such as e-mails between the Senate Armed Services Committee and Lockheed Martin keeping the two efforts informed of each other’s activities?

Such activity would almost certainly not be illegal under the Senate ethics rules, as I understand them, but it would be a matter of supreme interest to the public.

There are other concerns as well.

In 2010, Senator McCain took a leading role in opposing the purchase of additional Lockheed F-22 aircraft when Secretary of Defense Robert Gates decided to enforce the production cap at 188 aircraft. Also, McCain has been critical of Lockheed’s much bigger, $397 billion, F-35 program.

It will be extremely important to note if McCain’s rhetoric on either aircraft changes or if he takes no action to give legislative meaning to his words on the F-35 in defense bills yet to be debated in the Senate. If McCain becomes a benign, neutral, or even vacant force on Lockheed’s aircraft, questions about the role of his new staff director will become unavoidable.

I should repeat: there is no known question of legality. But there are questions that should be asked about whether the Lockheed and McCain anti-sequestration campaigns are interacting with each other in any way. It is also appropriate to suggest that if harsh rhetoric for Lockheed programs like the F-35 evolves into legislative inaction, still more questions should be asked.

These are the kinds of concerns that become unavoidable when members of Congress permit their staff to go work for defense contractors, and when the revolving door rotates back in the other direction. It starts becoming tiresome when there is no one to keep it from spinning.