Defense contractor and senators defend earmarks

By ALBERT MCKEON Telegraph Staff Writer

Last year, New Hampshire Sens. Judd Gregg and John Sununu helped defense contractor BAE Systems land $14 million worth of military technology projects for the company’s Nashua-area facilities.

This year, the Republican lawmakers accepted $10,000 and $5,500 respectively from a political action committee representing BAE Systems employees.

Gregg and Sununu contend the campaign donations, and others they have received over the years from BAE Systems’ PACs and lobbyists, had no influence on “earmarking” million-dollar projects to the company.

Rather, they say they sponsored the earmarks because of the skills of BAE employees, the ability of the projects to strengthen the nation’s defense and the opportunity for federal dollars to benefit the local economy.

For that matter, Gregg and Sununu said they take this same approach when backing any earmark request they make in a spending bill.

But not everybody agrees.

“Contributions help. They get people’s attention,” said Steve Ellis, vice president of the nonpartisan watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense.

“BAE is a business; this is an investment decision they’re making. It’s not, ‘We agree with this person philosophically.’ It isn’t a pro-choice, pro-life thing or a big- or small-government thing. . . . It’s a business decision. . . . It’s almost impossible to prove a quid pro quo, but obviously it’s done to curry favor.”

But, according to a company spokesman, BAE Systems employees donate because of a politician’s philosophy.

“We make financial contributions to House and Senate candidates who reflect our interest in a strong national defense,” BAE Systems spokesman Greg Caires said.

Caires added later in an interview: “It’s unfair to suggest a tie to an earmark and a contribution. BAE doesn’t make contributions with the expectation of support for a program.”

Campaign contributions

The Nashua-area facilities of BAE landed four defense contracts totaling more than $14 million through appropriations backed last year by a combination of the state’s four federal legislators. Gregg supported all four earmarks; Sununu three of them.

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes, both Democrats, supported two and one of the projects respectively, but didn’t receive campaign contributions from a BAE Systems PAC.

Hodes accepted $1,000 from a lobbyist who is listed as representing BAE in 2007 (for no money), but he said he would return the money after The Telegraph informed him of the possible connection to the earmark he backed.

Gregg received $10,000 and Sununu $5,500 from the BAE Systems political action committee for the 2008 election cycle – not the first time the two senators have benefited from the defense contractor’s PAC.

According to public records provided by The Center for Responsive Politics, Gregg has accepted $26,300 from BAE Systems since 1989, his 11th biggest contributor. The top donor over that time, Blue Cross Blue Shield, has given him $51,914.

Including the recent $5,500 donation, Sununu has accepted $35,500 from BAE Systems – the 16th largest contributor to his campaigns since 1996, his first term as a congressman. The top donor to Sununu is the Club for Growth PAC, with $177,335 contributed.

Donations from BAE Systems include one for $10,000 in 2002, when Sununu ran for the Senate against Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

Vague language

As with many defense contractors, BAE Systems provided vague descriptions of the four projects sponsored in 2008 earmarks, using language that mirrors the military’s stated mission of protecting the nation during a new age of terrorist threats.

For instance, for the $1.7 million earmarked “Advanced Threat Alert – Advanced Technology Demonstration,” the company said the Air Force contracted BAE Systems to “design, fabricate, test and demonstrate a modular, scalable Advanced Threat Alert system for numerous types of Air Force aircraft as part of constant efforts to update their advanced electronic warfare systems to make sure they are protected from ever-evolving threats.”

The fuzzy technical description of this and other projects doesn’t surprise John Keller, editor-in-chief of the New Hampshire defense industry magazine Military & Aerospace Electronics. The work of BAE Systems and other defense contractors is classified, he said.

“That’s why we have a republic: You and I don’t vote on the line items. The people who vote on them are cleared to know what these projects are,” Keller said. “There needs to be a degree of trust to do that. If you let everyone in on it, it wouldn’t be a secret. Could you conduct national security and all its nuances if it’s out in the open?”

Here are the other BAE Systems projects supported by earmarks and the descriptions offered by the company:

$6 million for the Advanced Precision Kill Weapon System:

The APKWS “provides soldiers and marines with a high precision, low collateral damage technology that is desirable for urban combat at a cost to taxpayers that is substantially reduced cost compared with currently deployed options. It is a defensive technology that is urgently needed and ideally suited to the urban warfare environments that currently define the Global War on Terror.”

$2.8 million for the Distributed Aperture Infrared Countermeasure/Common Missile Warning System:

Otherwise known as “DAIRCM/CMWS,” the system protects Army helicopters from “infrared-guided threats,” the company said. “The current systems in various stages of use by the Army are also supplied by BAE Systems. DAIRCM/CMWS would distribute more of the threat sensing and defeating equipment over the outside of the helicopter, which would increase effectiveness and reduce drag and maintenance.”

$4 million for Compass Call:

BAE Systems succinctly offered: “FY08 funding was provided to the Air Force, which contracted with BAE Systems to upgrade some of the aircraft’s electronics subsystems.”

Bringing it home

Technically, the earmarked money for a defense project goes to the military branch involved, and the earmark recipient then lands the contract, Keller said. But make no mistake about it, he said. The legislators sometimes land work for these military contractors over the recommendations of the Defense Department, he said.

“Congress can force stuff down the throats of the armed services whenever they want to,” Keller said.

The military usually knows what company can best fit its needs, but if a lawmaker wants to keep his or her home state’s big defense contractor happy, the Pentagon has little power, he said.

Politicians never forget to keep their constituents satisfied with projects that make the economy churn, Keller said.

BAE Systems is one of the state’s largest employers, with more than 4,600 workers in southern New Hampshire. But the company wasn’t the only one in the state to benefit from defense earmarks.

Among those projects: Solid State Scientific Corp. in Nashua received $3.2 million to develop infrared sensors for missiles; DRS Codem Systems in Merrimack got $2.4 million to improve a ground surveillance kit used by special operations forces; and Impact Science & Technology obtained $2.4 million to further develop 360-degree visual awareness capabilities for military vehicles.

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