The Pentagon has now done just what it had to do in the case of Mary Ann Gilleece.
That is both the good news and the bad. In a technical sense the case has been neatly disposed of. Miss Gilleece has been pilloried in a report by the department's inspector general and has resigned. But the almost surgical nature of this process by which she was removed is itself a part of the problem. Words are cheap in cases such as this, but we would have welcomed a few from on high, some sense of indignation on the part of the secretary or deputy secretary. Plainly they care. It would help if they said so. Miss Gilleece has been caught and is gone. What is the lesson? That is what they should tell us.
The inspector general took us as far as a person of his rank can. On several occasions the present inspector general, Joseph Sherick, has shown himself to be an important force for good in the department. The department's senior officials had turned to him on July 3, about a week after stories saying Miss Gilleece was considering setting up a consulting firm appeared in the press. The stories suggested that she was soliciting future business from defense contractors over whose affairs and profits she still exercised official sway.
Before writing to the contractors, Miss Gilleece had gone to the attorney in the general counsel's office who has charge of conflict-of-interest questions. There is some dispute as to how much she told him and what he replied. Mr. Sherick said the attorney should have been sharper in the advice he gave her. He suggested that, in the future, ethics advice to senior officials be more formal and in writing, and that the standards of conduct be clarified on the question of when officials should recuse themselves.
But ultimately, the inspector general said, "responsibility . . . rested with Ms. Gilleece, herself an attorney. . . . (W)e do not believe her culpability is significantly reduced by good faith reliance on the advice of counsel."
Mr. Sherick said there was no evidence Miss Gilleece had broken the law, or had specifically helped any contractor whose custom she was seeking. Her problem instead was with the departmental rules, he said, which forbid not just conflict of interest but the appearance of it. Appearances -- and the public confidence that they can so powerfully affect -- are partly what is at stake here. We are compelled to turn to Mr. Sherick for that. "The actions taken by Ms. Gilleece, and the ensuing publicity, have so compromised her ability to perform her rule making and policy setting role that she can no longer effectively serve the department in such a position," he wrote; her violations of the rules "created a lack of public confidence in her official conduct."
Defense contractors both are and are not like other private companies in the economy. Their relationship with their prime customer is not the same as the arm's-length relationships that prevail in private transactions. On many issues the interests of department and contractors are the same. Almost every administration looks to the contractors for some of its senior defense officials; as is well known, the contractors recruit from the department in turn. The revolving door is itself a source of public distrust, yet difficult to deal with. Congress just tried, again, to legislate against it, and not with much success. The Gilleece case is easy; these others are hard. The secretary needs to speak out on them, more than he has. They are ethical issues, and the inspector general's office should not be the only place one looks for guidance on them.