John Klossner

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Klossner: I do, unless I get that nomination

In the 1979 movie "Being There," based on the book by Jerzy Kosinski, Chance the gardener rises to national prominence and the President's ear by parroting statements he has heard on television (this was before PACs, when that sort of access required more creativity.) This was intended as satire, but have we reached that point?

I ask that in light of this week's editorial topic, recent blocks of the nominations of what appear to be qualified candidates for the top positions at two federal agencies, Jim Williams at the General Services Administration  and Elizabeth Hight at the Defense Information Systems Agency.

I must admit naivete on the Jim Williams situation. People more knowledgeable than I have stated that he was qualified and a good fit for the position. Senator Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), however, has a problem with Williams' role in the Sun Microsystems GSA schedule contract controversy, and has put the brakes on his nomination. This seems to be a sausage-making situation at this point and, as the saying goes, I don't want to know too much about it. As I once speculated in this space, perhaps Mr. Williams forgot to send Sen. Grassley a Christmas card. Any thoughts beyond that would be pure speculation on my part, and probably not well-considered.

I am more interested in the plight of Navy Rear Adm. Elizabeth Hight, whose nomination to head DISA was blocked by the Senate's Armed Services Committee because her husband is a vice president of business development and sales at a division of Northrop Grumman. The committee considered this a conflict of interest. Let me see if I get this right: A career, complete with a trail of years of service, can be negated by being married to the wrong person?

This catches my attention on a couple levels. First, if it is a problem for couples to be on opposite sides of the business-government fence then I imagine the federal employee ranks would be thinned considerably. (At this point I will avoid the cheap joke of pointing out that, as a married couple, one could argue that she will see less of him than she will of other contractors.)  Second, this block is an action based on potential conflict of interest - something to happen in the future.

Now I'm not naive enough (well, maybe I am) to misinterpret conflict of interest when billions of dollars are on the table. And I would be the first  to cry conflict of interest if, hypothetically, a person who made large campaign contributions was named to head a national relief agency without having any previous experience in that field. 

Experience is the key word here. Elizabeth Hight has a resume to consult. In her years of service to the government has she shown any conflicts of interest? Did she let her then-beau look at competitors'  sealed bids when they were courting? Did they get married in Vegas?  Can they get divorced under the reasoning of irreconcilable Senate committees?

I think her experience has to trump the potential in this case, unless it has been shown that this potential has been realized in the past by this person. To declare her unqualified at this point -- after her extensive track record -- because of who she's married to is insulting to her as an adult, and insulting to her years of service. (If anything, I would imagine her being named head of this agency would be a bigger issue for Northrop, due to the scrutiny her relationship with the company would receive.)

Both of these situations bode poorly for career feds. Are people who have committed themselves to government work for years considered tainted because they have more tracks to consider? Are successful couples on different sides of the fed-private relationship disqualified from positions at or near the top? More so than the hypothetical campaign contributor who has no experience for the committees to stumble over? This has the potential to leave us with a group of Chauncey Gardiners as agency heads.

Let's hope they don't turn into Inspector Clouseaus.

Posted by John Klossner on Aug 06, 2008 at 12:18 PM


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