A U.S. Senate panel’s confirmation hearing for former New Mexico congresswoman Heather Wilson stuck mostly to the nuts and bolts of what her duties as the next secretary of the Air Force may entail.
But her previous scandals related to her post-Congress business connections came up more than once during the three hour meeting before the Senate Armed Services Committee Thursday morning. The panel did not vote on Wilson’s nomination to the post.
The committee’s ranking member Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, posed questions to Wilson about her controversies working as a private contractor for national laboratories and her lobbying for weapons contractor Lockheed Martin.
In quizzing Wilson about her private defense contracting work, Reed brought up the conclusions of a federal investigation that found that Sandia National Laboratories wrongly paid Wilson for services that federal law bars compensation for. The federal Justice Department did not fault Wilson for the problems, but the four national laboratories that Wilson contracted work for ended up repaying the federal government $442,000 it had spent on her contracts.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, brought up the fact that her contracts didn’t have detailed records of the work she did for the national labs.
“The people who were supervising me know what I did,” Wilson said. “They were happy with the work and offered me a fulltime job.”
Blumenthal responded by saying that if Wilson is confirmed as Air Force secretary, he hopes she “will hold contractors serving the United States of America to a higher standard.”
Reed also asked Wilson questions about her role in the 2006 U.S. Attorneys scandal. That year, Wilson contacted former U.S. Attorney David Iglesias and reportedly pressured him to talk about sealed indictments of an investigation into alleged voting fraud in New Mexico.
Iglesias, who was one of several U.S. Attorneys soon fired that year by the Bush administration, wrote that he took the call as a threat to his job.
Wilson defended her actions at the Thursday hearing, emphasizing that she called Iglesias out of concern after an unnamed constituent made an “allegation of impropriety” against Iglesias.
“I had an allegation that the U.S. Attorney was intentionally delaying corruption cases,” Wilson said. “He denied it and I took him at his word.”
Former U.S. Senator Pete Domenici, a close ally of Wilson’s, was also involved in that scandal, as was then-Republican Party of New Mexico chairman Allen Weh.
Iglesias felt that Wilson and Domenici were pressuring him on the corruption investigation of former state senator Manny Aragon, seeking indictments before the next election.
As the likely next Air Force secretary, Wilson emphasized that the agency needs to invest more in research and development. She lamented that the Air Force is currently using dated equipment and had been harmed by downsizing from federal sequestration.
Wilson promised to “modernize” the agency.
“The Air Force is too small for what the nation expects of it,” Wilson said.
New Mexico U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat who successfully beat Wilson in the election for the Senate in 2012, praised her for having “impressive qualifications” for the job. Heinrich asked Wilson about what she would do with the “significant” amount of Air Force vacancies in civilian employment.
Wilson responded by calling the issue “the biggest for us all.”
“Almost half of the people who serve in the Air Force are civilians. They are part of the team,” Wilson said.