House panel fears bidding rigged against Hill AFB

The House National Security Committee is so certain it's being deceived that it will require Clinton administration officials to be sworn in before they testify about military base closures.Committee Chairman Floyd Spence, R-S.C., said his committee has never before bothered to swear in witnesses but feels it must now do so.

The committee openly scoffed Thursday as the Clinton administration again insisted it is not rigging bids against Hill Air Force Base as it seeks jobs from a closing California base.

Spence also announced that because of committee distrust, two of its subcommittees will launch more detailed investigations into the possible scandal and will seek all White House documents related to it.

Spence and Rep. Jim Hansen, R-Utah, also said the Air Force has so ruined its credibility on the bidding that it should now turn over the decision on who should win to another arm of the military - such as the Army or Navy - or an outside panel.

"The Air Force is not interested in obeying the law," charged Rep. J.C. Watts, R-Okla., in comments typical of both Republicans and Democrats on the panel.

At the root of the problem is a 1996 campaign promise by President Clinton to save jobs at two air bases in vote-rich states - McClellan in California and Kelly in Texas - despite base closure commission orders to close them.

He proposed to keep those jobs in place using private contractors. Congress complained that violated base closure laws, would keep excess facilities open and would save no money. It then passed new laws requiring fair and open competition for the workload.

Spence called for Thursday's hearing after the Utah delegation obtained what it called a "smoking gun" memo in April between Pentagon officials saying the White House wanted them to ensure Lockheed Martin could win bids and keep work at McClellan in Sacramento - preventing Hill from winning the work.

But Acting Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters testified that he didn't really mean what he wrote in that memo - and that his wording was sloppy because it was written in a hurry on a Sunday afternoon between handling many other matters.

He said the administration didn't seek, as he wrote, to ensure that Sacramento would win bids against Hill, only that Hill would have at least one competitor in bidding to drive down potential contract costs.

Peters also promised, "We must have fair and open competition for Air Force work" and said seeking fairness and low cost has been the only concerns raised by the administration.

Hansen scoffed at that, noting that Peters' own memo said, "It is Sacramento's uncertainty that is being translated into White House interest."

Spence also said it is highly unusual for the White House - especially its civilian political operatives, who called the meeting with Peters - to have such intense interest "in the details of arcane depot contracting issues."

Spence added, "In my opinion, it strains credibility for anyone to contend that such White House involvement is: No.1, routine; and No. 2, not political."

Spence also complained that the Air Force has not provided promised data to congressional reviewers that its says proves the bidding procedures have been fair - including a decision to bundle all work from Sacramento together in one huge bid (which others say improves chances of keeping all of it in California).

Hansen also read a long list of quotes from memos he and others obtained - including an Air Force memo stating a goal of keeping 8,700 jobs at McClellan - as prime evidence that the Air Force and administration are ignoring the law, despite denials.

"The responsibility for this decision must be assigned to another military service or independent body," Hansen said. He said that is the only way to restore trust.