Sen. Cantwell wants 'minute-by-minute' account of tanker mix-up

Sen. Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellAvalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Week ahead: Trump expected to shrink two national monuments Live coverage: Senate Republicans pass tax bill MORE (D-Wash.) is demanding that the Air Force provide a “minute-by-minute” description of an incident that temporarily gave each combatant in a multibillion-dollar aerial tanker competition data about its rival’s proposal.

In a letter to Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl LevinCarl LevinCongress: The sleeping watchdog Congress must not give companies tax reasons to move jobs overseas A lesson on abuse of power by Obama and his Senate allies MORE (D-Mich.), Cantwell slammed the Air Force for “glossing over” the data mishap and unveiled a list of questions she hopes will fill in “gaps in our understanding of what happened.”

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“From day one, the Air Force has attempted to gloss over the incident and minimize its potential impact on the cost adjustment phase of the source-selection of the KC-X tanker,” Cantwell wrote. “Congress must not be as indifferent … when so many taxpayer dollars and domestic jobs are at stake.”

Late last year, the Air Force sent information to tanker rivals Boeing and EADS — but the packages got mixed up and each competitor received the other’s bid information. The service quickly branded the mishap a simple “clerical error,” saying both firms quickly returned the packages without closely examining the contents.

Those reassurances failed to prevent lawmakers who want the contract work performed in their state from crying foul. At Cantwell’s behest, Levin has promised to publicly investigate the procedural stumble and the Air Force’s tanker acquisition process.

While Boeing and EADS executives have largely been mum on the incident, neither company has ruled out an eventual protest because of it.

In a new twist, Cantwell alleges EADS possessed data about Boeing’s proposal for one month. 

But EADS North America CEO Sean O’Keefe said late last year that once company employees recognized what had occurred, they boxed up the information and quickly returned it to the Air Force. An EADS spokesman has yet to return a call about the matter.

“Even if this release was inadvertent, it can have far-reaching consequences if not addressed properly, if it ends up violating laws and fair-competition regulations or if it directly impacts a bidder’s strategy for establishing its final price in a competition,” Cantwell told Levin. 

If Boeing wins, it would do KC-X tanker work in Washington state.

Air Force officials are slated to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee in coming weeks to discuss the error and how it might affect the years-long, scandal-plagued 179-plane competition.

That hearing is slated “for hopefully next week,” said a Cantwell aide. “But definitely before Feb. 1.”

Levin is in Afghanistan, and no hearings have yet been added to the panel’s January agenda.

“I believe there are several questions which must still be answered to ensure that the Air Force is providing a level playing field for every bidder for this $35 billion contract,” Cantwell wrote in the letter, which contains the questions she wants the committee to ask the Air Force witnesses.

Cantwell wants the Senate Armed Services Committee to find out the results of two reviews ordered by Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz after the incident went public. She also wants to know whether any reactions were in line with existing laws and DoD acquisition regulations, and whether any other “remedies” were considered. 

Additionally, Cantwell wants the panel to seek clarification on how long it took air brass to decide how to react. She also wants to know whether EADS did indeed have Boeing’s data for a month, and if so, what the service did to ensure Boeing will not be disadvantaged.

Cantwell requested that Levin’s panel ask what each company did upon realizing the mistake, and whether those actions were correct. Finally, Cantwell wants to know whether a fair competition is now even possible, as well as how the mishap will affect a part of the competition where each bidder's proposed prices are adjusted a number of times.