The recent withdrawal of Vincent Viola from his nomination to be Secretary of the Army denies our nation the services of a great American at a time when the Army could really use his talents. One can never fully know the machinations of the internal vetting process that worked to undo Viola’s nomination, but his credentials are remarkable: West Point graduate, entrepreneur, and a generous donor to research efforts at West Point. It is difficult to imagine a system that denies someone this talented the opportunity to take another step to serve his country.
Viola is a Wall Street billionaire founder of Virtu Financial, owner of the Florida Panthers hockey team, and, when nominated, the majority owner of Eastern Air Lines. According to the Trump transition team, Viola “shared all of his business dealings with the transition” and was “actively pursuing full compliance with all requirements necessary for his confirmation.” As part of his effort to eliminate conflicts of interest, Viola was negotiating the sale of his majority share in Eastern Air Lines for part ownership of Swift Air. Ironically, this divestiture created another conflict. The New York Times reported that Swift Air is “a charter company with millions of dollars in hard-to-track government subcontracts,” and that Viola “would find himself in the precarious position of being a government official who benefits from federal contracting.” More broadly, “his airline negotiations bring an unexpected twist, showing that even when appointees try to sell assets, the transactions can be bedeviled with ethical issues.” Viola withdrew his nomination.
Viola is yet another example of the costs one’s success can impose on those who seek to enter public service. Nevertheless, in the eyes of ethics lawyers in the government, it is an open and shut case. It is also a high-profile case where the conflicts are easy to identify yet the remedies by the individual, difficult to provide. This vetting, however, extends beyond high level nominees. I have personal experience with this that, while anecdotal, shows how the process works on lower level appointments distant from both the public eye and the need for Congressional confirmation.
In May 2012, then Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno asked me to establish and direct the Army’s first Chief of Staff of the Army Strategic Studies Group. He wanted an independent group that could take on problems for him and help him think deeply about some of the challenges facing the Army in the future. Gen. Odierno wanted me to start immediately, because the first group of 30 fellows was arriving in July. These fellows were mostly Army officers, ranking from captains to colonels, but we also had an officer each from the Navy and Air Force as well as several civilians. While the offices, computers, and other physical requirements were in place, there was no program for what the fellows would do. I was deeply honored by this invitation and said I would do it. I was ready to start the next week.
At the time, I was working for the RAND Corporation and would be on loan to the Army for a year through the Intergovernmental Personnel Act. RAND fully supported me. I dutifully submitted all the paperwork requested by the Army ethics lawyers and asked when I could sign the final agreement. The answer was “soon.”
After waiting two weeks, I called the office processing my case and asked what was holding things up. They again replied that it would all be resolved “soon.” I also asked if there were any issues that were holding up the agreement. No, they responded, everything was fine. They just needed a little more time.
This completely opaque process directed by anonymous ethics lawyers went on for six weeks. It was extremely frustrating, because I had much to do and I could not get anyone to tell me what was holding up my appointment.
Finally, I got through to one of the Army ethics lawyers and asked what the problem was. She said she was concerned that I had written many RAND reports and that my role directing this new group would make people want to buy them. She explained that this risked an ethical conflict, because the sales would profit RAND. Of course, the very reason Gen. Odierno wanted me for this job was my research and publication record. I explained that all RAND publications are available online for free and that I did not believe it would create a conflict. Indeed, the part of RAND where I was working — the Arroyo Center — was funded by the government and the Army specifically. We finally agreed that the RAND reports were not an issue.
Then, I opened my mouth and inserted my foot.
I told the lawyer that I was receiving royalties for a book published by Cornell University Press, Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army: 1917-1945, although I quipped that I found more money in my couch cushions than I received annually from book sales.
Immediate red flag!
The RAND publications were fine, but my book was a big problem. If I talked about my work, then people would buy the book, thus enriching me with pocket change. The only remedy to this potential conflict of interest was for me to forego any future book royalties — forever. I asked if I could instead give the royalties to a charity benefitting veterans. The response was an immediate “no.” Directing these tens of dollars annually to a specified charity would show a personal preference. I then noted that, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia were all probably receiving royalties for their books. That did not matter. Army ethics lawyers had higher standards, although I could never get a list of them.
I signed a letter giving up my royalties and was finally able to go to work.
I do not believe my modest example is isolated in the Army or elsewhere in government. In the case of Viola, he was willing to sacrifice much to serve his country. But, not sufficiently or rapidly enough to satisfy ethics officials. He was essentially being asked to destroy what he had spent a lifetime building.
How much talent is our country willing to sacrifice to satisfy this extreme vetting process?
David Johnson is a retired Army colonel. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.