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Report Finds Air Force Officers Steered Contract

Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Goldfein
Maj. Gen. Stephen M. Goldfein, vice director of the joint staff (U.S. Air Force)

The idea behind the Thunderbirds contract emerged in 2005, when Ed Shipley, a close friend of the Thunderbirds who regularly flies aircraft in Air Force shows, suggested ways to keep audiences entertained while the aircraft circle around to do stunts. Shipley, who made millions in direct television marketing videos, came up with an idea for "Thundervision," and his new company, SMS, pitched a $50 million, five-year plan.

Gen. John Jumper, then the Air Force chief of staff, asked his vice chief at the time, Gen. T. Michael "Buzz" Moseley, to see if he could make it happen. Moseley met with Goldfein and Shipley in April 2005 and made money available for the project, ordering subordinates and contracting teams to look into it.

Contracting officials dismissed the idea of giving the contract outright to SMS and set up a team to investigate bids. But a majority of people on the selection team were members of the Thunderbirds -- officers who knew Shipley as a friend and Goldfein as the commanding general of the Air Warfare Center. The Thunderbirds commander at one point said, according to the report: "If it's not SMS, we don't want it."

Investigators also found Gen. Hal Hornburg, who retired in December 2004, was a "silent partner" of Shipley's who joined SMS in early 2005. Moseley is a friend of Hornburg's and knew Shipley. Neither Shipley nor Hornburg returned calls.

Investigators detail how Moseley -- now the Air Force's chief of staff -- socialized with Shipley and Hornburg in the months after the contract process started. Moseley and his wife, along with Hornburg and his wife, gathered at Shipley's home in Pennsylvania in July 2005, and they shared informal e-mails.

Moseley was not accused of wrongdoing but said in an interview this week that he probably should have backed away from Shipley and Hornburg as the contract progressed. But he emphasized the need for personal relationships to cultivate ideas and said that he knew there were strict boundaries regarding such contracts and that he never crossed them. He said he instructed subordinates to "do the right thing."

His account is supported by e-mail records in the report. "In perfect hindsight, there are some things that the U.S. Air Force could have done differently," he said. "There are some things that people along the way, me included, could have done differently."

Moseley said he wishes that officers who noticed problems in the process had simply said "stop." The contract was canceled in early 2006 after an Arizona company lodged complaints. The U.S. attorney's office in Nevada declined to prosecute the case in May 2007.


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