To quell complaints about White House meddling, Defense Secretary William Cohen ordered Tuesday an outside review of competition for jobs at an ordered-to-close California base.
That followed days of Republican attacks after they found a memo between defense officials saying the White House wanted them to urge Lockheed Martin to bid for the jobs and keep them in place in Sacramento - rather than have Utah's Hill Air Force Base win the work.Also on Tuesday, acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters - who wrote the controversial memo - removed himself from any decisions about who will win the jobs from McClellan Air Force Base in Sacramento.
"Mr. Peters felt it made some sense for him to do this, to remove himself as a target of criticism here and to remove any question about the bidding process," Pentagon spokesman Ken Bacon told reporters.
Bacon also said Cohen felt the outside review was needed "to eliminate some fears that this process won't be handled fairly."
Bacon vowed that the resulting process will ensure "that this bidding is handled in the fairest possible way and that the contract is let in a squeaky-clean way."
In reaction, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said, "Cohen did the right thing. He is attempting to correct the political tampering with the competitive process."
But he and other Republicans still plan to push for probes into the matter. Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, wants congressional committees to seek, by subpoena if needed, all White House communications on the competition.
And Hatch, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, said the White House appears to have violated acquisition rules and "the Ethics Reform Act, which prohibits collusion, including attempts at collusion, between government officials and contractors to obstruct competition."
Meanwhile, the White House again denied any improper meddling or wrongdoing and said a meeting there that led to the memo was merely to ensure that the team of Hill and Boeing (which would do some of the work in Texas) would not be unopposed in their bid for the California work.
White House spokesman Mike McCurry said Tuesday, "The White House shares the objectives of seeing competition with respect to services provided by these depots in the interest of saving taxpayers' money. That is our motivation and our sole motivation."
But Utah's members of Congress say the memo proves otherwise - and proves continuing political manipulation after Clinton's 1996 campaign promise to keep jobs at the California base despite base closure commission orders to shut it.
In the memo, Peters wrote that President Clinton's deputy chief of staff, John Podesta, wants defense officials to encourage Lockheed Martin " to bid to win the work and to perform the work at Sacramento."
It then lists specific points of action the military should take to help Lockheed Martin win - including clearing the way for favorable leases in Sacramento.
The memo also makes clear, Utah members say, that Lockheed was already apparently planning to bid anyway - but not necessarily to keep work in Sacramento if it won. The memo said, "It is Sacramento's uncertainty that is being translated into White House interest."
Meanwhile, the administration was launching some attacks through the national media against Utah politicians for also trying to influence the outcome of the bids.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday that administration officials noted to it that a Jan. 9 letter signed by Utah's congressional delegation and Gov. Michael Leavitt urged Boeing to team with Hill to bid for McClellan's business (which it did).
The administration, the Peters memo said, had expected Boeing instead to bid separately to keep work at McClellan - which is why it said the White House subsequently wanted to urge Lockheed Martin to bid for it instead and keep work in California.
Utah's members of Congress say a big difference between their efforts and the administration's is that they urged a company to become a possible partner for an open competition, but the administration tried to influence a competition it is in charge of running.