USA Today reports that retired military officers join the boards of directors of, or become employees of, defense contractors and take home big bags of money doing so. Not surprising. At the same time, the paper reports, lots of them are being paid by the Pentagon to be “senior mentors” of their former colleagues. Not being government employees, but rather independent contractors, these folks aren’t subject to government ethics rules. To take one example, as chairman of BAE Systems, Gen. Anthony Zinni is clearing almost a million a year, in addition to his $129,000 per year government pension. In addition to all that, the Pentagon pays him about $2,000 per day to “mentor” people at DOD.
As the article points out, information is almost invaluable to the defense contractors in these contexts. The knowledge of what’s going on at DOD is extremely useful for planners at the defense companies, and so while the retired officers are protesting that being paid nearly $2,000 per day by DOD for their work as mentors is “way below the industry average,” it increases their value to, and presumably their compensation from, their military-industrial employers. As one coordinator of the mentors program told the retired officers, “you’re getting paid in two ways–monetarily and informationally.”
This isn’t too surprising a story, but the crowning irony comes as Sen. John McCain calls for an ethics rewrite and offers his view that “the important thing is that [the involved officers] avoid the appearance of conflict.” This is a puzzling remark coming from a man whose top foreign-policy adviser was collecting hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Georgian government to lobby McCain at the same time he was being paid by McCain to advise him on foreign policy.
McCain’s thoughts about conflict of interest in that instance? He was “so proud” of his lobbyist-cum-adviser. Presumably once McCain issued his ridiculous “today we are all Georgians” fatwa it became a patriotic duty to take money from foreign governments to represent their interests. But in the case of the proposed reforms–which would attempt to institute some semblance of transparency in these mentoring deals–one can only wish the senator from Arizona the best.