WASHINGTON — Two Republican lawmakers questioned the Air Force's top civilian official on Wednesday about alleged improprieties in the way it acquires multimillion-dollar aircraft.
Reps. Ted Budd and Walter Jones, both of North Carolina, said in a letter sent Wednesday to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson that there may be a "serious, systemic problem" at an Air Force unit known as Big Safari.
The congressmen said their investigations reveal a potentially improper relationship between Big Safari and L3, a major defense contractor headquartered in New York. The unit, formally known as the 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, is based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
The Air Force and L3 did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the allegations in the letter.
The lawmakers said they have found "significant revolving door activity" between the Air Force unit and L3, a term that typically refers to military and government workers being hired by a particular company.
The congressmen cited information from two Air Force officers about how the unit steered a 2014 contract to L3 for the sale of aircraft to Yemen. The officers, both majors, said a better aircraft from a company called IOMAX was available for $15 million less, but the contract was awarded to L3 without competition.
IOMAX is located in Mooresville, North Carolina, which is part of Budd's congressional district. One of the majors is still on active duty and the other is in the Air Force reserve. Neither officer is employed by IOMAX nor have they ever received compensation from the company, according to Budd's office.
The two majors were assigned at the time to the 6th Special Operations Squadron, according to the letter, and had been deployed to Yemen as part of the U.S. mission to improve the Middle East's nation's internal defense. After exploring a number of options, they settled on the IOMAX Archangel, a combat attack aircraft also being used by the United Arab Emirates, the congressman said.
Their decision, the letter from Budd and Jones said, was backed by senior special operations officials at the Pentagon. Big Safari was then assigned to purchase four Archangels combat attack aircraft for Yemen.
"By early 2014, the contact had been awarded to without competition to L3, for a price of $15 million above IOMAX's quote," the letter said. "The planes were delivered months late, and were so poorly manufactured that the 6th SOS majors rejected the aircraft."
They added that the information provided by the majors "suggests something is seriously wrong with the way Big Safari does business."
The lawmakers also asked Wilson about a contract worth $418 million that L3 won for the sale of border security aircraft to Kenya. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent a letter in May to Wilson seeking information about the contract. The committee said L3 won the contract despite evidence the company has limited experience manufacturing this type of aircraft.