Nominee founded institute to steer contracts to Wis.

ASPIN AT DEFENSE: CRITICS ASSAIL TIES

December 26, 1992|By Nelson Schwartz | Nelson Schwartz,Contributing Writer

WASHINGTON -- When Les Aspin came to Washington 22 years ago, he was a young Turk, quickly making enemies among the military brass and a name for himself on Capitol Hill. Armed with little more than news releases and a few aides, he exposed billions in defense waste and began the climb that ended this week with his selection as secretary of defense.

But some critics charge that in recent years the Wisconsin congressman has become a symbol of what he once fought against, an entrenched member of the military establishment, a man who overlooks conflicts of interest in an effort to steer defense pork to his political back yard.

Much of the criticism focuses on a group he founded: the Aspin Procurement Institute. Created in 1986, the year after he became chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, the nonprofit organization's stated goal is helping Wisconsin companies compete for lucrative federal contracts, mostly from the Pentagon.

Critics maintain that the lines between Mr. Aspin's political interests and those of the institute have sometimes blurred. Now, as Mr. Aspin is poised to take over the reins at the Defense Department, they ask whether he should have lent his name and credibility to an organization that works closely with big defense contractors -- companies whose work for the Pentagon Mr. Aspin was charged with overseeing.

Although he serves as the Aspin Procurement Institute's honorary chairman, Mr. Aspin has maintained that its activities are separate from his congressional office. But the institute's executive director, Mark Wagner, is a former member of Mr. Aspin's district staff; its president and treasurer, Robert Henzl, served as his campaign chairman during the 1970s and 1980s, and its vice president, Jim Wood, is a longtime friend and fund-raiser.

Other personal relationships have been called into question, too.

Last year, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that Mr. Aspin, who is divorced, was dating a steel company executive whose company, Scot Forge Co., received more than $6 million in defense contracts.

The relationship also made headlines when the woman accompanied Mr. Aspin on free military flights in the United States and in the Middle East. He later reimbursed the government for the cost of the trips.

Mr. Aspin also went to bat for an institute client and local employer, Oshkosh Truck, and the Army ended up buying thousands more trucks than they had originally sought. Mr. Aspin's defenders point out that the heavy trucks were a critical asset in the Persian Gulf war, helping supplies get to the front.

The Army was grateful -- and so was Oshkosh Truck. Its employees have donated $4,000 to Mr. Aspin's campaign fund in the past five years.

Other institute clients also have contributed to Mr. Aspin's campaigns. The political action committee of motorcycle maker Harley Davidson donated $7,000, according to the National Library on Money and Politics, a private research group. Rockwell International Corp., the parent company of a local institute client, gave more than $3,000 through their PAC to Mr. Aspin's most recent campaign.

Half of the budget of the Aspin Procurement Institute comes from contributions by Wisconsin companies. The other half comes from the Defense Department, under a program created by Congress in 1985.

Congress set up the program to aid companies that wanted to do business with the Pentagon but were wary of government red tape. Many of the program's 97 beneficiaries are nonprofit state and local government partnerships; Mr. Aspin is thought to be the only member of Congress who organized a procurement institute, according to the Pentagon.

Since 1988, the federal government has given the Aspin Procurement Institute almost $1 million.

Officials at several of the companies that donate to the institute freely admit that access to Mr. Aspin is a prime consideration in their company's decision to contribute to the institute.

"If it were called the John Smith Procurement Institute, nobody would give a damn," said one company executive, who insisted on anonymity. "Belonging to the institute obviously counts for something."

Another executive said, "The Aspin institute knows what doors to knock on. If you need help, you can call them. They can hold your hand through the labyrinth of defense contracting."

Ralph Nader isn't so blase. "Aspin has institutionalized congressional corruption," said the liberal activist. "The institute provides a facade for influence-peddling. . . . He uses tax money to promote contracts to corporations who turn around and give to his campaign."

Mr. Aspin's aides insist that critics misunderstand both the institute and the normal duties of a member of Congress. "Les Aspin has assisted the work of the procurement institute as part of his overall effort to bring jobs and business to Wisconsin," said Vernon Guidry, an Armed Services Committee employee. "That's what congressmen do. There is no conflict of interest in helping the institute bring business to Wisconsin."

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