Coburn calls for investigation into earmark-funded company

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) has requested a Pentagon investigation of a defense contractor that he has targeted in recent weeks due to its earmarked funds.

In a letter last week to Defense Department Inspector General Claude Kicklighter, Coburn asked for his office to investigate 21st Century Systems Inc. (21CSI) to determine whether the defense contractor failed “to file legally required paper work” or used “federal funds for prohibited lobbying activities.”  

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John Crane, an official from the Defense Department inspector general’s office, wrote back to Coburn Wednesday. He stated that his office is looking into the senator’s request and “will provide you the results of that examination and our course of action in the matter of as soon as possible.”

The Oklahoma Republican has set the defense contractor in his sights of late as part of his larger struggle against earmarked funding being pushed by fellow members of Congress.

Coburn offered an amendment to this year’s defense authorization bill to strike a $7.5 million earmark for the company, arguing that the funds are unnecessary since the Pentagon did not request them. His provision never received a vote, however, because Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pulled the bill from the floor due to the dispute over funding for the Iraq war.

As the earmark’s sponsor for 21CSI, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has defended his appropriations request aggressively despite the increasing attention from Coburn and from the media. Nelson has argued that the company’s funding serves vital national security needs.

According to the company’s website, 21CSI has contracts with the Navy and Army to provide military computer software.

Nelson’s support for the earmark led to a recent unfavorable column by Robert Novak that raised questions about the senator’s son, Patrick, who is employed by the company. On a statement posted on his website, the senator called the Novak column “a gross misrepresentation of the facts.”  

Nelson’s office declined to comment on Coburn’s letter to the Pentagon’s inspector general, and calls to a company spokesman were not returned before press time.

Investigators from Coburn’s office have spent several weeks looking into 21CSI, and their probe has taken them across the federal government, according to correspondence obtained by The Hill.

Coburn’s letter to the inspector general is not his first to the Pentagon inquiring about 21CSI. Two weeks ago, the Oklahoma senator wrote to Defense Secretary Robert Gates asking about the company.

Coburn was specifically interested in the paperwork that has to be filed by government contractors like 21CSI under federal law. Coburn asked for obscure forms, titled SF-LLLs, which disclose lobbying activities by a contractor and certify that it did not use federal funds to lobby the government.  

Coburn’s attempts to obtain 21CSI’s SF-LLL forms have been rebuffed by the company, according to his letter to Gates. The senator is concerned that the company might have used federal funds to lobby the government for its contracts.

The defense contractor has spent more than $1 million on lobbying fees since 2001, according to Senate disclosure forms.
And more than 80 percent of its annual revenue comes from federal funds, according to news reports cited by Coburn.

Because of the company’s refusal to answer his investigators’ questions, Coburn also asked for a full audit of all 21CSI’s federal financial awards in his letter to Kicklighter.

Bill Allison, a senior fellow at the Sunlight Foundation, a transparency watchdog group, has also been looking into SF-LLLs but has not had much more luck than the Oklahoma senator.

“We have been unable to get a single one from a contractor. It seems nobody is following the rules,” said Allison.

Allison and others at Sunlight have been filing Freedom of Information Act requests across the federal government. But several agencies, such as the Department of Transportation and the Environmental Protection Agency as well as the Pentagon, have told the group that SF-LLLs are either not filed, not collected, or kept closed to the public.

If a contractor fails to file the forms, however, the fines can reach $10,000 to $100,000, said Allison. “If no contractors are filing these forms, I think the federal government is owed a lot of money,” he said.

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