A Story Punctuated by Death

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, November 4, 2007

On Oct. 1, The Post ran a Page 1 story about a temporary Pentagon assignment given a retired Air Force officer by a defense contractor. On Oct. 14, the officer, Lt. Col. Charles Riechers, was found dead, apparently a suicide. On Oct. 17, the Air Force complained to me about the story.

The suicide of someone featured in a critical story is first a family's tragedy but also a journalist's nightmare. The story's author, business investigative reporter Robert O'Harrow Jr., expressed deep sadness at Riechers's death and the family's loss.

O'Harrow wrote that Riechers went to work for Commonwealth Research Institute, a nonprofit defense contractor in Johnstown, Pa., for two months and was paid $26,800. Riechers was awaiting appointment by the White House to the No. 2 job in Air Force procurement, a political position. O'Harrow quoted Riechers: "I really didn't do anything for CRI." Instead, he worked for Sue C. Payton, assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition, on projects with no connection to CRI. Payton was to become his boss.

Lt. Col. Edward W. Thomas, an Air Force spokesman, said that the story was "highly misleading," as was the main headline: "Air Force Arranged No-Work Contract."

Thomas said that the arrangement with Riechers was "a common practice across the federal government. We were working to keep a highly qualified individual with impeccable credentials in government service." He argued that important details of the work Riechers performed were given to O'Harrow but were not in the story.

The Air Force asked CRI to take on Riechers for two months under an existing SETA -- science, engineering and technical assistance -- contract, Thomas said. William Davidson, who arranged the contract as a high-ranking assistant to the secretary of the Air Force, said the scope of the CRI contract "matched the requirements for advice that could be provided by Mr. Riechers. Use of this type of adviser is not unique, but it was an unusual situation. I believe use of the CRI contract was not only legal but ethical."

Frank W. Cooper, president of CRI, said he felt the story "missed some of the specifics that were provided. Mr. Riechers did perform the tasks under the contract to support the Air Force" and was "the best qualified" to do the job. "We have done other contracts like this over the years," he said, and government Web sites routinely offer such deals. CRI's corporate parent is Concurrent Technologies, which has received hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts from the military.

The story is part of a continuing Post examination of the complex federal contracting system. O'Harrow said the aim of the story was "to let the facts speak for themselves and offer the opinions of the best experts I could find. Those experts were sharply critical of the arrangement."

Procurement experts I talked to differed on the arrangement and context. Frank Camm, a Rand Corp. economist and an expert on government contracting, said such arrangements were not unusual, but he raised a good question: To whom was Riechers accountable -- CRI or the Air Force? Deborah D. Avant, a professor of political science at the University of California at Irvine who focuses on the privatization of security, said, "Lots of jobs are used for interim purposes until a person is on a payroll."

Loren B. Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank on defense issues, writes frequently about the Air Force. Thompson said, "It is not bad if you step back from the detail" and look at what the Air Force was trying to do, which was keep Riechers working until he was officially appointed. But in his quarter-century of studying defense, "I haven't encountered an arrangement quite like this. Obviously it raises questions about the management of government funds when a contractor can be directed to compensate a prospective government employee for a purpose unrelated to the reason the money was originally appropriated. On its face, that doesn't sound like good government."

Stan Z. Soloway, a deputy undersecretary of defense during the Clinton administration, was critical of the story and headline. "It lacked important context and facts. There are questions of appearance here, but this does not appear to have been a no-work contract. He did work for the Air Force. While it doesn't mean the arrangement was the right thing to do, the picture is somewhat different when you look at the context." Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council, which represents the government services industry.

David M. Nadler, a government contracts partner at the firm Dickstein Shapiro, is a former Navy lawyer. He felt the arrangement was "questionable. Even if there is a legal justification, there's still a real appearance problem. Especially because of its prior situation with Druyun, you would think the Air Force would have been sensitive to the appearance issue." Riechers's job was last held by Darleen A. Druyun, a career civil servant who went to prison in 2004 for negotiating a job with Boeing while she worked for the Air Force and for showing favoritism toward the company in procurement.

Steven L. Schooner, co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University, was critical of the arrangement. "This is not the kind of example that we expect from the leadership in the procurement community. If it's commonplace, then it's disappointing. From a procurement standpoint, it almost flaunting the rules."

My judgment: There is nothing inaccurate in the story as a narrow slice of the contracting picture. But the story lacked important context -- whether such contracts are commonplace or unusual and what specific work Riechers did for Payton under the contract.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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