DHS allows industry liaison to keep his business ties
The Homeland Security Department is allowing its new chief commercialization officer, who was hired to improve DHS’ relationship with industry, to maintain the Web site of his currently dormant consulting firm and his seat on the boards of directors of several companies while he works at the department.
DHS decided that after recusing himself from potential conflicts of interest, Thomas Cellucci could keep his limited presence in the private sector because it was consistent with the ethics rules for a limited-term administrative appointment. However, former federal managers and good-government advocates interviewed by Federal Computer Week said DHS needs to be mindful that such relationships do not produce appearances of conflict of interest.
DHS’ Science and Technology Directorate hired Cellucci in August for a five-year term in hopes that his experience in the private sector and background in science could improve the department’s ability to help transition new technology to its operational components and first responders — a goal of the directorate.
Cellucci had been running a technology consulting firm that was doing business in homeland security. When agreeing to serve as DHS’ first chief commercialization officer, Cellucci disclosed all of his private-sector involvement to the department and agreed to cease his consulting firm’s activity and to avoid any DHS work related to the companies on whose boards he continues to serve. He also has restrictions on what work he can do after he leaves government.
He was, however, allowed to maintain ownership of Cellucci Associates, which still lists him as principal consultant and advertises homeland security-related consulting services on its Web site. Cellucci and DHS say that the firm is completely inactive, but its Web site still posts working contact numbers.
After Federal Computer Week’s inquiries last week regarding the Cellucci Associates Web site, Cellucci added a pop-up addendum to the landing page stating his current role with DHS and that the company was not accepting any new business.
Amy Kudwa, a DHS spokeswoman, said that Cellucci had fully disclosed all of his activities and keeps the department continually apprised.
“Dr. Cellucci has expressly recused himself from involvement in any project or business affiliation which would have a direct economic impact on himself, any boards that he has retained membership in, and his dormant consulting firm Cellucci Associates Inc,” she said.
However, Scott Amey, the Project on Government Oversight’s general counsel, said that when it comes to ethics issues, appearance is also important. He said that the position needs a lot of oversight because the position carries “almost an inherent conflict of interest.”
“The revolving door is well-accepted practice in Washington, D.C., but I do have concerns if he’s in a position to regulate or oversee any of his past clients,” he added. “It all boils down to public perception.”
Cellucci said that he has followed DHS’ instructions and is willing to comply with other recommendations from the department. He also added that he has gone out of his way to be upfront with the department and fully disclose all of his involvements.
Furthermore, the new position, which is still in its initial phases, has gotten a “tsunami-like” positive response from industry, he said.
He first suggested the new position to senior DHS officials he met at a recent stakeholders’ conference.
Cellucci said that a goal of his job is to better explain the department’s operational needs to the private sector. If companies see a secondary market for new products, for example the more than 25 million first responders nationwide who could work with DHS, vendors will be willing to spend more money on developing new products quicker, he said. < br />
“I would think of the chief commercialization officer as a broker,” Cellucci said. “The private sector comes to us all the time with a solution looking for a problem.”
The position has gotten little exposure in the press but was lauded by analysts interviewed for this article as an innovative approach to DHS’ research and development challenges.
Stan Soloway, a former deputy undersecretary of Defense for acquisition reform and director of the Defense Reform Initiative, said that bridging the gap between government and industry is critical to understanding what possible solutions are out there. Soloway, who is currently president of the Professional Services Council — a trade association representing government contractors — also noted the importance of perception in engendering public confidence.
“The key is you have to adhere very closely to be sure that not only the existence, but the appearance of a conflict is dealt with,” he said.
Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.