Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the committee’s chairman, and Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, raised the issue at the outset of the hearing. Wilson said that if Energy Department inspectors “had bothered to talk to me, I would have been able to help them” when concerns were raised about a deal she entered in 2009.
She said that rather than lobbying, she provided consulting work that included about 50 hours per month. She later was offered a job as a vice president at Sandia, she added, but opted to run for the Senate in New Mexico.
“In this case, I was in very close contact with the people at Sandia,” Wilson said. “They knew exactly what I was doing. We worked… often several times a week together on things that they wanted me to do. I fully complied with the contract, and I did the work.”
The deal later led to Sandia and three other private laboratories with which Wilson signed contracts to reimburse the government $442,000 after it was determined that money she earned was not spent directly on national security. Sandia also reached a broader deal in 2015 with the Justice Department in which it repaid more than $4.7 million that investigators said was spent on lobbying.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) challenged Wilson directly on the lack of specifics in the paperwork she filed as a contractor during the hearing. She billed the government for “consulting services,” Blumenthal said, but there is little sense for what that included. He asked if she would hold contractors working on future contracts to a higher standard, and she declined to give a yes or no answer.
“Senator, the United States deserved my best work, and that’s what they got,” she said.
“The correct answer is ‘Yes,’ don’t you think?” Blumenthal countered.
Wilson, 56, has served since 2013 as the president of the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, an engineering and science university in Rapid City, S.D., where she draws a salary of $373,819. She also receives $200,333 as a member of the board of directors of Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, and $46,000 as a member of the board of directors of Raven Industries, which makes military and agricultural equipment, according to financial disclosure documents.
Several Republicans on the committee said she is highly qualified to be Air Force secretary, citing her experience in the military, on Capitol Hill and as a member of the National Security Council during the George H.W. Bush administration.
Under questioning, Wilson said she supports an ongoing review of the F-35 program, which is on pace to cost more than $1 trillion. Trump has suggested that he may eliminate the F-35 in favor of buying more F/A-18 Super Hornets, but Wilson said doing so probably would not be “good enough” because the F-35 has stealth capabilities and older planes such as the F/A-18 and F-16 do not.
In both prepared testimony and questioning, Wilson also advocated jump-starting the pace of research and development of futuristic weapons and said that she is concerned that the Air Force has not spent enough money on research and development.
“The pace of innovation in this field is stunning, and we’re either going to continue to innovate or we are going to get left behind,” she said.
Committee members were still waiting for answers to additional questions as of Thursday afternoon. It’s expected a confirmation vote could take place as soon as next week.