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Senators accuse Air Force officials of hiding Boeing probe documents

Air Force official said e-mail records were not relevant to Senate Armed Services Committee investigation.

Senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have accused the Air Force of withholding e-mail documents they deem relevant to an inquiry into the service's plan to lease Boeing Co. KC-767 tanker aircraft.

In a Sept. 13 letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., ranking member Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also raised potential conflict-of-interest concerns about one of the documents and its possible impact on the White House decision to back the controversial deal.

"We are troubled by the fact that the Air Force chose not to provide this document to the committee due to the Air Force assessment that the e-mail was not relevant to the committee's oversight," the letter states, referring to a May 9, 2003, e-mail from Air Force Secretary James Roche to Office of Management and Budget national security chief Robin Cleveland.

In that e-mail, Roche responded to Cleveland's request by offering to help her brother seek employment with defense giant Northrop Grumman. Roche served as a senior executive with the company before his federal appointment.

The contents of the senators' letter and the relevant e-mails were read to CongressDaily Monday.

One source familiar with the e-mail cited the existence of a "file drawer" containing a number of e-mail exchanges and other internal communications the Air Force may have withheld that were relevant to the committee's inquiry into the tanker proposal.

A spokesman for Roche could not be reached by presstime Monday. But last Thursday, in a statement to CongressDaily, the Air Force said it provided documents in good faith according to "established criteria for determining whether documents were responsive to the committee's request.

"The subject e-mail did not meet the established criteria because it failed to address the tanker lease proposal in any substantive way," the Air Force said. But one of the criteria in question, according to the knowledgeable source, is the word "tankers," which appears at least twice in the e-mail stream recently brought to the committee's attention by OMB.

In their letter, the senators raised the possibility that the exchange between Roche and Cleveland may have played a role in prompting OMB's support for the deal. They said the e-mail exchange "took place just prior to a change in OMB's position on the lease from long-standing objection to support." Their letter also cited a "potential conflict of interest to include possible violations of criminal statute."

Prompted by the committee, OMB has since referred the matter to the Justice Department for further investigation, even though the Office of Government Ethics, as well as internal Air Force and OMB ethics officials, found no legal issue with the e-mails.

In a May 9, 2003, e-mail to Roche, Cleveland requested the secretary's endorsement of her brother, Peter, in obtaining a position with Northrop Grumman. Cleveland supplied her brother's relevant employment information and cited his qualifications for the job.

After forwarding the information to Northrop Grumman and offering his endorsement, Roche wrote to Cleveland: "Be well. Smile. Give me tankers now." In a subsequent sentence, he qualified the statement as a joke.

It is unclear whether Cleveland took Roche's comments seriously, but two days later, in a May 11, 2003 e-mail, Cleveland's brother thanked her for helping him secure an interview with Northrop Grumman. She replied that she hoped it would work out "before the tanker leasing issue gets fouled up."

Lt. Col. Michael Caldwell, a spokesman for Roche, described the secretary's e-mail in a Sept. 23 statement as "a light-hearted exchange between two longtime friends and colleagues," and asserted that no expectations were attached to it.

Before May 2003, OMB appeared to be in staunch opposition to the Air Force's tanker proposal. Although differences between the Air Force and OMB over the details of the tanker lease continued, a shift in OMB's position on the tanker lease became apparent after Cleveland and Roche exchanged e-mails. According to a document reviewed by CongressDaily, Roche, Cleveland and Pete Aldridge -- then the Pentagon's acquisition chief -- met with two top Boeing executives May 15, 2003.

A second meeting between Cleveland and Boeing personnel was referenced in a May 16 e-mail among Boeing staff in which Cleveland's name appeared. In the e-mail, Boeing executive Andrew Ellis said Cleveland had detailed OMB's concerns with the lease, and had suggested ways to address the concerns of White House Chief of Staff Card. In a subsequent May 22 e-mail from Boeing executive Jim Albaugh to Boeing executive Randall Simons, Albaugh states "OMB and Robin are on board."

But even after then-OMB Director Mitch Daniels issued a May 23, 2003 public statement in support of the Boeing tanker lease, OMB continued to challenge the proposal.

In a June 27, 2003 e-mail from Boeing executive John Sams to top Boeing executives, Sams states that "OMB still has issues" with the lease, questioning whether it would have been more expensive to lease the aircraft than to purchase them outright. The e-mail cites an "ongoing meeting" between the Air Force, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and OMB in an attempt to resolve differences.

OMB spokesman Chad Kolton said in a statement Monday that OMB agreed to support the Defense Department's decision to lease the Boeing tankers for a number of reasons, including "the Air Force's assessment of its tactical needs and the fact that negotiations produced a substantial reduction in the price."

Kolton noted that the Pentagon has ordered "a number of studies to be conducted on the deal and any deal would still require congressional approval" and that "OMB supports this review and is awaiting the outcome."