Did The White House Pressure A General To Change His Testimony To Help A Campaign Donor?

More pay for play at the White House?

Eli Lake is out with a story at The Daily Beast that at the very least raises an eyebrow:

The four-star Air Force general who oversees U.S. Space Command walked into a highly secured room on Capitol Hill a week ago to give a classified briefing to lawmakers and staff, and dropped a surprise. Pressed by members, Gen. William Shelton said the White House tried to pressure him to change his testimony to make it more favorable to a company tied to a large Democratic donor.

The episode—confirmed by The Daily Beast in interviews with administration officials and the chairman of a congressional oversight committee—is the latest in a string of incidents that have given Republicans sudden fodder for questions about whether the Obama administration is politically interfering in routine government matters that affect donors or fundraisers. Already, the FBI and a House committee are investigating a federal loan guarantee to a now failed solar firm called Solyndra that is tied to a large Obama fundraiser.

Now the Pentagon has been raising concerns about a new wireless project by a satellite broadband company in Virginia called LightSquared, whose majority owner is an investment fund run by Democratic donor Philip Falcone. Gen. Shelton was originally scheduled to testify Aug. 3 to a House committee that the project would interfere with the military’s sensitive Global Positioning Satellite capabilities, which control automated driving directions and missile targeting, among other things.

According to officials familiar with the situation, Shelton’s prepared testimony was leaked in advance to the company. And the White House asked the general to alter the testimony to add two points: that the general supported the White House policy to add more broadband for commercial use; and that the Pentagon would try to resolve the questions around LightSquared with testing in just 90 days. Shelton chafed at the intervention, which seemed to soften the Pentagon’s position and might be viewed as helping the company as it tries to get the project launched, the officials said.

“There was an attempt to influence the text of the testimony and to engage LightSquared in the process in order to bias his testimony,” Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) said in an interview. “The only people who were involved in the process in preparation for the hearing included the Department of Defense, the White House, and the Office Management and Budget.”

(…)

The White House confirmed Wednesday that its Office of Management and Budget suggested changes to the general’s testimony but insisted such reviews are routine and not influenced by politics. And it said Shelton will be permitted to give the testimony he wants, without any pressure.

OMB “reviews and clears all agency communications with Congress, including testimony, to ensure consistency in the administration’s policy positions,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz. “When an agency is asked by a congressional committee to testify, OMB circulates the agency’s proposed [draft] testimony to other affected agencies and appropriate [executive office of the president] staff. If a reviewer has a comment to the proposed testimony, that suggestion is typically conveyed to the agency for their consideration. When divergent views emerge, they are often reconciled through discussions at the appropriate policy levels of OMB and the agencies.”

The general’s office declined to comment, and LightSquared did not return calls seeking comment. Harbinger Capital Partners, Falcone’s investment firm, said it would provide a comment Thursday.

LightSquared has previously acknowledged it met with administration officials as it tried to shepherd the project, which is consistent with President Obama’s goal of trying to expand broadband wireless access nationwide.

If it sounds familiar, that’s because it is:

Melanie Sloan, who runs the nonpartisan ethics groups Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the emerging allegations about possible White House involvement in LightSquared’s matter seemed to mirror earlier allegations in the Solyndra case.

“With this new set of facts, it starts to sound like a pattern of the White House improperly pressuring people at agencies involving decisions that affect companies tied to donors and fundraisers,” Sloan said. “It’s always a problem when the White House is pressuring anyone’s testimony. I don’t care if you are a four-star [general] or a GS-15 [career employee], you should be giving your true opinion and not an opinion the White House is seeking for political expediency.”

Sloan recalled similar instances during the Bush administration, when officials were accused of trying to meddle with climate scientists’ testimony. “It doesn’t matter what party is in charge, money frequently trumps good policy in Washington,” she said

At the very least this is something that should be investigated but, if it’s even remotely true, it would seems pretty clear that the Administration of “Hope and change” and the candidate who promised to clean up Washington is, not surprisingly, no different that his predecessors.

Again, as I said yesterday, the problem here isn’t so much the issue of the how money influences politics and the access that being a donor buys, although that’s certainly a legitimate concern. The real issue that when you have a government that has its hands in so many different parts of the economy, handing out subsidies, loans, licenses, and the like, it’s inevitable that private industry is going to do what it can to advance its interests. It’s a perfect example of the crony capitalism that I’ve been talking about lately, and it exists in both parties. The answer, I would submit, isn’t to increase campaign finance regulations in some naive attempt to reduce the influence of money in politics (as if that would ever be possible) but to reduce the extent to which government is involved in handing out benefits to business as much as possible, and to resist its expansion. If there’s less to give out then there will be less influence peddling.

Will things like this ever be eliminated? Of course not. Politics is a profession for the people who work in it and, like the world’s oldest profession, its practitioners have perfected many different ways to sell themselves. As long as we hold on to the idea that government and business should be “partners,” though, we’ll continue to see things like this.

FILED UNDER: Barack Obama, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Rick DeMent says:

    What is naive is the idea that it’s somehow easier to reduce the money that’s given out compared to regulating how much money is spent on bribes … er campaign donations. They are hand in hand that same thing Doug. The same people who benefit from the free for all campaign finance system have a vested interest in keeping their hand on the money tap. If they won’t control one they will be unable to control the other. Heck even the some of the Teavangelical house freshmen have been caught trying to being home bacon and they haven’t gotten though their first term.

    The reason is simple, if they don’t bring it home the campaign cash dries up and goes to their opponents in the next elections. By opening the doors to corporate cash there is now “0” chance that a grass roots movement to contain campaign finances or conversely lower the amount of money the government has to dole out.

    Bottom line: if you think the idea of reforming campaign finance is a pipe dream then lower the amount of cash the government has to dole out is just as silly or more.

  2. Sam says:

    Not surprised! Chicago politics is the rule of the day.

  3. Sam says:

    I should add, it seems like Obama and company, are not even trying to hide some of this stuff any longer under the belief they will be immune to any type of legal scrutiny since they own the JustUs Dept.

  4. CB says:

    “It doesn’t matter what party is in charge, money frequently always trumps good policy in Washington,” she said

    depressing.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    Of Course they all do it – you can’t bring a knife to a gun fight. If this stuff really upsets you Doug you should be pushing massive campaign finance reform. As long as it takes so much money to run it will be the lobbyists that control policy not the electorate.

  6. Jay Tea says:

    @Ron Beasley: Ron, did you actually read the story? The White House got the general’s prepared testimony, ran it past the company, and “asked” the general to make changes based on the company’s comments.

    If you consider that “business as usual” and “no big deal,” you ought to be stripped of your right to vote for life.

    J.

  7. Tano says:

    Well, Doug, I see that you and Sarah have a little “crony capitalism” meme going. Seems to me that you are trying to shoehorn a totally innocuous situation into the template. I can understand her motives, but whats up with you?

    Explain to me please the world you think should exist. Lets say you were some entrepreneur. You have developed a product that might, in theory, interfere with the military in some adverse way. What should happen?

    Should you and other businessmen be free to screw up the military’s capacity, to the detriment of all of us? Should the military have the power to shut you down because they see a threat? Would you like to see a government that you could appeal to, to get the situation worked out?

    Would there be something wrong with an executive administration that listened to your concerns, and directed the military to do certain tests to see if there really is a problem? If you had made some contribution to the ruling party in the past, should you be prevented from making such a request, or should the government be prevented from trying to help you?

    You are quick to make accusations of criminality, and yet I see nothing wrong here. What are you talking about? Os there any evidence that the administration favored this company over others that did not contribute? Is there any evidence that there is anything out of the ordinary about this?

    And how is this evidence for a government with too many tentacles in business? The issue seems to have arisen because the business makes a product that might interfere with the military. Are you saying that the government has no role in solving this issue?

  8. Jay Tea says:

    @Tano: You apparently missed the part where the White House gave a written copy of the general’s prepared testimony to LightSquared and had them review it and suggest changes before he presented it to Congress.

    But yeah, you betcha if I was a private business who’d spent a lot into political campaign donations, I’d want a little return on that investment. A return like, say, getting the chance to review and revise Congressional testimony that would directly affect my bottom line. And the Obama administration came through for them.

    J.

  9. Tano says:

    JT.

    What is the problem with that? The testimony is merely a statement of the government’s position on the issue. What on earth is wrong with soliciting the input of a business that is affected by government policy, before the policy is made final?

    Seriously, I don’t know what your issue is here. You would prefer a government that didn’t care what businesses thought of its policies????

  10. avidus says:

    The General was being asked what effect Light Squared would have on military electronics. There is considerable concern that the Light Squared Wifi towers could drown out GPS. Obviously if the military has trouble using GPS then we have a rather large problem.

    On one hand we have a potentially large effect on national security, difficulty accessing GPS, and on the hand we have billions of dollars at stake for a private company – who is also a major Democrat party donor.

    Surely you don’t think that the General’s testimony should be as objective as possible?

    Instead we have the subject of the testimony being able to review the text beforehand and suggest changes favorable to them on something that may have a dramatic effect on national security.

    This shouldn’t even be up for discussion. Regardless of what party you support this is indefensible.

  11. Tano says:

    @avidus:

    This shouldn’t even be up for discussion. Regardless of what party you support this is indefensible.

    Thats pretty funny. We shouldn’t even discuss this!

    First off, what is the source of this story? As I read it, I had the impression that it was a story about the general spilling his guts to the committee about how he was strongarmed. But on more careful reading, it seems that the source of this is just some GOP committemember.

    We are given characterizations of what the general said, but no quotes. At least there was an admission that the charges emerged when the general was “pressed” by the members. He supposedly said he was “pressured” but there is no quote. Seems highly likely that the general was “pressed’ to say that the WH reviewd the testimony, and that was then spun by the politicians to be some sort of pressure.

    Surely you don’t think that the General’s testimony should be as objective as possible?

    And where is the evidence that it wasn’t? If the Pentagon felt that the technology was a problem, and the WH pressured then general to say that it wasn’t, then sure, that would be a problem. But that is not what happened.

    This the problem with these type of posts. They start with partisan spin. Hyped by a sympathetic reporter. Then a lazy blogger, looking to further hype some “-gate” takes it another step – not casting the slightest bit of a skeptical eye on the story. And then finally comes the lazy or partisan reader who weaves together all the implied assumptions and ends up with a completely distorted opinion as to what actually happened.

    The changes to the testimony had to do with a statement of the government’s position advocating wider bandwidth availability (which presumably would mitigate any problem), and a commitment for the Pentagon to test this new technology.

    How on earth does this represent any corruption of the integrity of the testimony? Where is the danger to national security? You are hyping a lot of BS.

  12. Wayne says:

    RE “The testimony is merely a statement of the government’s position on the issue”

    No it is not. It is suppose to give a professional objective finding of the facts. There is nothing wrong with soliciting input from a company. I will bet you good money the company was given a chance to do that. There are people who give the administration and companies’ point of view in an inquiry but they are stated as being just that.

    Disguising that input by forcing their bias input into a supposedly objective study is wrong. The idea of an objective study is to keep undue bias influence from interfering with its results.

  13. Tano says:

    It is suppose to give a professional objective finding of the facts.

    What facts were discussed by the general? Which facts were distorted by the WH? Lets have some specifics Wayne, because I think you do not have the slightest clue about what you are talking about.

  14. Jay Tea says:

    @Tano: And the White House asked the general to alter the testimony to add two points: that the general supported the White House policy to add more broadband for commercial use; and that the Pentagon would try to resolve the questions around LightSquared with testing in just 90 days.

    (Emphasis added)

    The general was asked to state his support for the policy of add more broadband for commercial broadband. I see no way how such a matter would be the concern of the military. I can see how they might oppose it, but otherwise they should have no opinion. However, it does serve the interests of LightSquared, who were given a copy of his prepared testimony and offered its “suggestions” for when he presented it before Congress.

    J.

  15. An Interested Party says:

    If this stuff really upsets you Doug you should be pushing massive campaign finance reform.

    Oh we can’t have that…free speech, you know…

  16. Tano says:

    JT,

    For how long has the administration supported increased bandwidth? What evidence do you have that this policy was changed or adopted with the receipt of contributions from this company? What are the arguments pro or con? Does the military have an opinion on this issue? What exactly were the suggestions that Lightsquared made? You don’t know.

    The Republicans are simply trying to hype some controversy over a completely innocuous occurrence. As they do everyday to no effect. And you fall in line…

  17. WR says:

    @Jay Tea: Because in your little mind,, the only opinion the military should ever be allowed to hold is that the Democratic president sucks and should be overthrown as quickly as possible.

    “I can see how they might oppose it, but otherwise they should have no opinion.”

    Yup, the military should have no opinion unless they agree with Jay Tea.

  18. Jay Tea says:

    @Tano: The question was not the Obama administration’s support for the expansion, it was the general being asked to express his support for it. And again, I repeat: I can see reasons why the military would oppose it, but not for favoring it. In matters like this, I simply can’t see the military being anything but opposed (if it affects them) or neutral (if it doesn’t) — there is simply no way it could help them.

    J.