New Air Force secretary is a former lawmaker and Academy grad

The Senate has confirmed Heather Wilson as Air Force secretary, making her President Donald Trump’s first service secretary nominee to be approved by the GOP-led chamber after fits and starts for several others.

Senators voted 76-22 Monday to approve Wilson, who represented New Mexico in the House before becoming a defense industry consultant. Her post-congressional work drew scrutiny for several Democrats, who had questioned an arrangement with government laboratories that paid her $20,000 a month. Wilson denied any impropriety.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he voted against Wilson’s nomination because of his lingering concerns with the payments. Reed also cited as troubling a call Wilson made a decade ago while still a member of Congress to a federal prosecutor handling a politically charged corruption probe.

Secretary of the Air Force Nominee Heather Wilson testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee, as a part of the confirmation process March 30, 2017, in Washington, D.C. In her opening statement, Wilson said, ” . . . we have the liberty to enjoy or blessings because thousands of America’s best citizens volunteer to protect the rest of us.” (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

Trump’s attempts to fill the other two service secretary jobs have failed so far. His picks for secretaries of the Army and Navy were forced to withdraw from consideration.

Mark Green, Trump’s second choice for Army secretary, stepped aside late last week amid growing criticism over his remarks about Muslims, and gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans.

The president’s first pick to be the Army’s top civilian, Vincent Viola, dropped out in early February because of financial entanglements, and about three weeks later Philip B. Bilden, the Navy secretary nominee, withdrew for similar reasons.

The Trump administration has been slow to fill many other senior civilian posts at the Pentagon, leaving Defense Secretary Jim Mattis short of the support he needs to manage the nation’s vast military enterprise. The Senate Armed Services Committee is holding confirmation hearings Tuesday for three important financial positions at the Defense Department: comptroller, deputy comptroller and director of cost assessment and program evaluation.

After serving five terms in Congress from New Mexico, Wilson collected nearly half a million dollars in questionable payments from federally funded nuclear labs, the Energy Department’s inspector general said in a 2013 report. Wilson failed to provide documentation for the consulting work she did to earn $20,000 a month from the Los Alamos and Sandia national labs in New Mexico from January 2009 to March 2011, the report said.

Wilson deflected questions about the payments, saying during her Senate confirmation hearing that she’d performed the work and that the inspector general had found no fault with her.

The telephone call referenced by Reed, the senator from Rhode Island, was made by Wilson in October 2006 to David Iglesias, a U.S. attorney in New Mexico. Iglesias was one of seven federal prosecutors fired a few months later by the Bush administration. At the time, Iglesias was handling a number of public corruption cases. Reed said the call raised the possibility Iglesias may have felt pressured by Congress in an ongoing investigation. Wilson said she did nothing improper.

Wilson served as an Air Force officer in Europe during the 1980s and was on the National Security Council staff under President George H.W. Bush during the fall of the Berlin Wall. She graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982 and later earned master’s and doctoral degrees as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University in England. Wilson is the first graduate of the academy to hold to hold the service’s top civilian post.

Wilson said that once confirmed she would resign as president of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. She’d also assured the Defense Department’s general counsel that she would divest of stocks she holds in companies that do work for the U.S. military, including Intel, IBM, Honeywell and Raytheon.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called Wilson a “proven leader” and said she would lead the service to a stronger future.

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