New Pentagon rule tightens revolving door

Any official involved in a big acquisition program will need written approval from an ethics officer to take a job with a contractor.

Pentagon officials who participate in costly acquisitions now will need written approval from an agency ethics officer before taking a job with a Defense Department contractor.

The interim rule in the Jan. 15 issue of the Federal Register, attempts to slow the revolving door between government and private industry. It was among a blitz of new regulations published on Thursday by DoD and other government agencies, responding primarily to legislation passed by Congress in the fiscal 2008 and 2009 Defense authorization measures.

Among the most significant rules is a regulation barring Pentagon officials who have "participated personally and substantially in a DoD acquisition exceeding $10 million or who [have] held a key acquisition position" from accepting a job with a defense contractor without first obtaining a written opinion from a Defense ethics counselor. The counselor will determine which, if any, activities the official can perform on behalf of the contractor for the first two years after the official leaves government.

The rule prohibits the contractor from providing any salary to the official until the post-employment ethics opinion is completed. Contractors who break the rule could lose existing contracts or be suspended or debarred from government procurement.

Current law restricts former Defense acquisition officials from working for defense contractors during a one-year "cooling off" period after leaving government. "Very senior employees" are subject to a two-year restriction. Former government officials are barred permanently from representing contractors on issues, such as a specific contract, that they worked on while in government.

The revolving door has been an issue for President-elect Barack Obama. But his proposals have centered on people entering government, not leaving it. He declared on the campaign trail that no political appointees in his administration would be allowed to work on areas "directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years."

Last week Obama made an exception to that policy, nominating William Lynn III, the senior vice president for Raytheon Co. -- one of the country's largest Defense contractors -- as the deputy Defense secretary. Lynn previously served in the Clinton administration as an undersecretary of defense, comptroller and chief financial officer.

The Government Accountability Office reported last year that in 2006, 52 major defense contractors employed more than 86,000 former military and civilian personnel who had left DoD since 2001. That figured included 2,435 former Defense officials who were hired between 2004 and 2006.

The Defense Department also implemented an interim rule on Thursday to protect Defense contractor whistleblowers.

Contractors are now prohibited from taking any action -- including demotion or termination -- against an employee who reports waste, mismanagement or contract violations inside their company to federal officials.

Whistleblowers who feel that their company has retaliated against them can file a complaint with the Defense inspector general. The IG then will determine if the complaint merits further inquiry, including conducting an investigation and issuing a written report.

The law also requires Defense contractors to notify their employees in writing about their whistleblower rights and protections.

Other new rules issued on Thursday:

  • Mandate that government agencies that award noncompetitive contracts publicly defend the need for the award. Within 14 days of the award, the agency would be required to publish on its Web site -- as well as a governmentwide site -- all justification and approval documents authorizing the contract, except for information exempt from public disclosure. In the case of noncompetitive contracts awarded on the basis of unusual and compelling urgency, the documents must be posted online within 30 days.
  • Prohibit Defense officials from issuing a task or delivery order contract worth more than $100 million to a single source unless the head of the agency determines that the award is necessary and in the public interest. The authority to make such a determination cannot be delegated below the level of senior procurement executive.
  • Require Defense contractors accompanying U.S. armed forces outside the country to provide their workers with appropriate law of war training.
  • Add a provision to all federal contracts authorizing government agencies to terminate them if the contractor or any of its subcontractors are found to have engaged in human trafficking.