Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, says even denials by the administration help prove it is meddling to prevent Hill Air Force Base from winning jobs at a closing California base.

Bennett says that is made clearer by a letter to him from Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre, which sought to deny any administration wrongdoing.Hamre wrote that the administration asked him to urge Lockheed Martin to team with the California base to bid against Hill and its partner Boeing for the work - but only to ensure competition and help lead to a lower contract price.

But Bennett notes that Hamre's letter says, "The Air Force cannot conduct a meaningful competition, much less a robust competition, without a strong private sector partner for Sacramento."

Bennett wrote a reply reminding Hamre that McClellan Air Force Base and its Sacramento Air Logistics Center were ordered shut down by a base closure commission and by law - "therefore, it is not in position to team with anyone."

He added, "You are treating Sacramento as if it were an open depot and the Department of Defense had a responsibility to find this depot a teaming partner. This is inappropriate.

"The first obligation of the Department of Defense is to readiness and not employment goals in California," Bennett wrote.

He also reminded Hamre that the 1998 Defense Authorization Act, which Clinton signed, also said no bidder shall be given preferential consideration for performing work from Sacramento at a particular location.

"The continued emphasis on `finding a partner for Sacramento' makes it clear that to (the Defense Department), location does matter and matters significantly," Bennett wrote.

Bennett also blasted assertions by Hamre and the White House that seeking help for Sacramento was necessary to ensure some competition against Hill and Boeing.

Bennett complained that it was the Air Force's decision to package almost all the work from Sacramento in one large bid - instead of breaking it into smaller pieces - that discouraged competition.

"This action was strongly defended by the Air Force as `logical and economical,' especially when it was assumed Boeing would do the work in California," Bennett said, adding he questioned recently if it wouldn't limit bids instead.

"I find it ironic that two months later, (the Defense Department) is now concerned about having a `robust' competition.

"It appears that a meaningful competition in the eyes of this administration is not a function of the number of competitors, but whether a competitor will bid to do the work in California," Bennett wrote.

Of course, Republicans have attacked the White House for a week after they were given a memo between defense officials saying the White House wanted steps taken to help keep the jobs in California.

While the administration has denied wrongdoing, Defense Secretary William Cohen has ordered an outside review of the bid process to ensure it is fair. And Acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters, who wrote the memo, has withdrawn from any further action on that particular bid.