|Key Army commander accused of steering defense contract to former classmates|
A key Army commander in the U.S. war against the Islamic State has been reprimanded by the Pentagon for steering a defense contract to a firm run by two of his former classmates at West Point, becoming the latest high-ranking officer to land in trouble for personal misconduct.
Maj. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, who as the Army’s deputy commander for operations in the Middle East oversaw the training of Iraqi forces, was formally reprimanded in February after a three-year investigation by the Army’s inspector general, according to documents obtained by The Washington Post under the Freedom of Information Act.
An Army review board is considering whether to strip him of his rank as a two-star general before he is allowed to retire this year.
Pittard, long considered a rising star in the Army, returned to the United States in April from his headquarters in Kuwait. The Army has not previously disclosed Pittard’s departure, and an official Army Web site still lists him as its deputy commander in the Middle East. An Army spokeswoman said that he completed his assignment and that his return was not related to his misconduct.
The U.S. military has been tarred by a series of ethical breaches committed by generals and admirals in recent years. Although Pentagon officials have vowed to crack down, the armed forces often seek to keep such cases out of the limelight to protect the reputations of their top brass.
Last year, for example, military officials said the commander of Special Operations forces in Central and South America had retired for “health and personal reasons.” In fact, it was uncovered in June after a review of documents that the commander, Army Brig. Gen. Sean P. Mulholland, had been disciplined for repeatedly becoming intoxicated in public and getting into altercations.
Similarly, the Navy has withheld details of misconduct committed by admirals in a corruption and bribery scandal involving an Asian defense contractor. In February, the Navy announced that it had censured three admirals, but it has refused to release public records documenting their actions or to identify other officers who have been subjected to administrative action.
The investigation into Pittard began in 2011 after an anonymous whistleblower alleged that the general had “abused his authority by awarding lucrative renewable energy contracts to his friends” while serving as the commander of Fort Bliss in Texas, the documents show.
The tip prompted separate probes by the Army’s inspector general and its Criminal Investigation Command. The FBI also became involved, culminating in the federal conviction of one of Pittard’s former West Point classmates on wire-fraud charges in September.
Pittard was not accused of financial gain but was reprimanded by the Army for his “excessive involvement” in awarding the $492,000 contract and for “creating the perception of preferential treatment,” according to his reprimand. The contract was an initial step in a $250 million project to make Fort Bliss, one of the Army’s largest installations, self-sufficient in energy usage.
Pittard declined to be interviewed for this article. In a statement, he described his actions as a result of his determination to move quickly on the energy project, a high priority for the Army.
“I invited a measure of risk with the contracting process,” he wrote. “Throughout my 34 years of service as an Army leader, I have always operated with an understanding that some risk is acceptable in taking action that will benefit our force.”
“If my example deters other senior Army leaders from taking bold risk in the future, that is unfortunate,” he added.
The Army declined to comment in detail. In a statement, Cynthia O. Smith, an Army spokeswoman, said the misconduct findings and Pittard’s reprimand “called into question his suitability for continued service and resulted in his request for retirement, effectively ending his career in the Army.”
Pittard is a decorated combat veteran who served multiple tours in Iraq. As a military aide to President Bill Clinton, he was entrusted with the “nuclear football,” the briefcase containing codes for launching a nuclear attack.
In 2012, he made headlines for a blog post in which he lambasted soldiers who commit suicide, calling it “an absolutely selfish act.” He later apologized, saying he had been frustrated by the recent suicides of two soldiers under his command.
A native of El Paso, Pittard returned home in July 2010 to take one of the Army’s plum assignments: commander of Fort Bliss, which covers a territory bigger than Rhode Island and has about 30,000 active-duty soldiers.
Prior to his arrival, Fort Bliss had drawn scrutiny from federal investigators for contracting irregularities. Pittard pledged to clean up what he called “low-level corruption” in the contracting office.
“We’ve got to make sure there is no cronyism. There are some gross examples of where we have paid way too much for certain things,” he said in a December 2010 interview with El Paso Inc., a business newspaper. “. . . The idea of the ‘sweet deal’ that bordered on cronyism, we are just not going to put up with it anymore.”
Within a few months, however, several members of Pittard’s staff grew concerned about his handling of a short-term contract to help manage the giant energy-efficiency project, according to a report by the Army’s inspector general.
Several Army officers, including Pittard’s staff lawyer, told investigators that the general went to unusual lengths to push a no-bid contract for a joint venture run by two of his former classmates from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Staffers said Pittard overrode their objections about the contract, including the lack of competitive bids. They said he met in private with his classmates before they were awarded the deal and intervened afterward to make sure they were paid.
“This is not good and downright illegal. These guys know it, and they continue to push the envelope because of their personal relationship with MG Pittard,” one unnamed colonel on the general’s staff wrote in a 2012 e-mail.
Another colonel responded: “All I can do is talk to him about it. I’ve advised him in the past concerning risks associated with meetings like this.”
Pittard told the inspector general he just wanted the energy project to move swiftly and didn’t care who got the contract. He said he wasn’t personally close with his two former classmates and didn’t even recall attending West Point with one of them — Thomas Gregory Harris — until his fellow alumnus introduced himself.
Harris, a retired Army colonel, was convicted by a federal jury and sentenced to two years in prison. In a deposition taken for Harris’s trial, Pittard testified that he had been interviewed by the FBI in May 2013 and that the agents gave no indication that he was suspected of wrongdoing.
A Justice Department spokesman in El Paso said that the criminal investigation was closed and that Harris was the only defendant.
An attorney for Harris called the investigation an overreaction and blasted the Army for reprimanding Pittard.
“He didn’t do anything wrong in this case. Nobody did anything wrong,” said Joel Androphy, a Houston lawyer. “Pittard has done very good stuff for our country, and he doesn’t deserve to be sanctioned by the United States.”
Former congressman Pete Gallego (D), whose district covered much of West Texas, contacted The Post on behalf of Pittard to say that the general was “getting a raw deal.”
“It’s really disheartening to watch, because to me Pittard is one of the best things to ever happen to Fort Bliss,” Gallego added.
In an official reprimand, the Army leadership admonished Pittard for showing “a gross lack of good judgment.”
“Senior leaders must be acutely aware of the pitfalls of associating with government contractors,” wrote Gen. Daniel B. Allyn, the Army’s vice chief of staff.
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