Leas: Questions for Leahy on the Air Force’s F-35 decision

Editor’s note: This op-ed is by James Marc Leas, a patent lawyer from South Burlington.

Dear Sen. Leahy,

A shocking report about F-35 basing decision in Burlington and Sen. Leahy appeared in the Boston Globe, “As jets seem bound for Vermont, questions of political influence arise,” by Bryan Bender, April 14, 2013. A Pentagon official told the reporter, “the base-selection process was deliberately ‘fudged’ by military brass so that Leahy’s home state would win.”

The Pentagon official further said, “Unfortunately Burlington was selected even before the scoring process began … I wish it wasn’t true, but unfortunately that is the way it is. The numbers were fudged for Burlington to come out on top.”

Sen. Leahy, the Globe reporter writes that in your emailed statement to him you “did not respond to allegations of political influence.” Not just Vermonters but all Americans deserve an answer now to the question posed in the article: Was political influence involved? Do you agree or not that important decisions, like this one, should be based strictly on the facts, without political influence?

The article explains how you have substantial political influence over Air Force decision-making: “Leahy, elected in 1974, is a powerful figure in the Senate. He is the longest-serving member and a senior member of the Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Defense, which exerts great control over how the Pentagon spends its budget.”

“While the Air Force was conducting its F-35 National Guard base evaluations, Leahy was simultaneously sponsoring successful legislation that significantly elevated the National Guard’s status within the military by making its top official a four-star general and giving it a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.” Could this little nugget mean something other than payback in place for a deal to push forward the trillion-dollar F-35 program with basing in Vermont?

We learn that, “as cochairman of the National Guard Caucus in the Senate, Leahy also is a prominent booster of the Guard and looks out for the Guard’s interests in Washington.”

Certainly, as a former prosecutor, wouldn’t you agree that the allegation by a Pentagon official of deliberate fudging by military brass is serious? Particularly in view of a trillion dollars of taxpayer money being involved in the F-35 program?

Just one problem: thousands of Vermonters are getting shafted. The Air Force says that nearly 3,000 homes will be in a zone the Air Force considers “unsuitable for residential use” if the F-35 is based in South Burlington. The Air Force says that F-16 noise already put 200 homes in that noise zone in South Burlington. Fifty-five of them have been demolished and the rest are awaiting demolition. We have firsthand experience here in South Burlington with the damage F-16s noise did to a whole neighborhood of affordable homes. Do you think, in the face of that destruction and a Pentagon official charging undue political influence, that the people here will allow thousands more homes to be put in that same noise zone?

The 8,000 Vermonters living in those 3,000 affordable homes in South Burlington, Burlington, Winooski and Williston expect you to look out for their interests in Washington. And not do anything that might sacrifice homeowners and renters living in our towns and our communities. Why would you continue to refuse to meet with any of these 8,000 if you were fighting to protect them?

Sure, I understand that developers — like Ernie Pomerleau, who is quoted in the article — may have much to gain personally as homes are demolished and land near the airport becomes available for commercial development. Can we expect you to protect thousands of Vermont homeowners and renters or not? Or will you put Ernie Pomerleau’s interests first? When thousands of homes and families are at severe risk from the noise zone and the crash zone of the F-35 — and from developers who may be seeking to use the noise zones to their own advantage?

Sen. Bernie Sanders told the Globe in a statement, “’I take seriously allegations that the scoring process may have been flawed’ … adding that the Air Force should release all of its documentation. ‘I do believe the process must be transparent and fair.'”

Certainly, as a former prosecutor, wouldn’t you agree that the allegation by a Pentagon official of deliberate fudging by military brass is serious? Particularly in view of a trillion dollars of taxpayer money being involved in the F-35 program? And the possibility that certain developers here in Vermont can personally gain while thousands of homeowners and renters stand to lose their affordable homes in Burlington, Winooski, South Burlington and Williston? Wouldn’t you agree that an impartial, transparent and independent investigation of these allegations is needed? Wouldn’t you agree that if wrongdoing by military brass is found by that investigation, the officials responsible should be prosecuted?

In view of the allegation in this Globe article by a Pentagon official that “the base-selection process was deliberately ‘fudged’ by military brass so that Leahy’s home state would win,” that “the numbers were fudged for Burlington to come out on top,” and that certain developers, including Ernie Pomerleau, are positioned to personally gain while thousands of families lose their homes, will you immediately ask the Air Force to stop considering Burlington for the first basing round, as recommended by 15 members of the Burlington area clergy? Such a solution will enable the Air Force to start its process over again, publish all its scoring sheets, and base its selection strictly on the facts. And without regard to any political influence that may have been applied.

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  • timothy price

    Senator Leahy, I thought, was once a Vermonter who worked for the people of Vermont. 9/11 happened and he wanted to have a real investigation as to what happened. But then he got a letter laced with anthrax and also got religion too. Suddenly he was a total supporter of the 9/11 Commission Report (laughable as it is) and Leahy, Welch and Sanders have hidden behind that report ever since. He sponsored CISPA, NDAA, Gun control, the F-35, etc…. Now I believe that Leahy functions as a pimp for the Empire. …. he has become a One-World-Government agent in Washington D. C.. Sad degeneration of a once respectable Vermont Senator. We will not support this take-down of our country.

  • William McKern

    Mr. Leas:

    1 — Will you acknowledge that the idea of elevating the National Guard Bureau Chief to four stars and a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff dates from at least 1997 (and maybe earlier), well before the F-35 basing question became an issue?

    2 — Will you acknowledge that the voters of South Burlington made clear their support for basing the F-35 there at this year’s local elections, when they replaced anti-F-35 city council members, and the city council president, a vocal F-35 critic, lost her leadership position?

    3 — Finally, will you admit that you are simply against basing F-35s in Vermont, under any circumstances and that no amount of “transparency” or “fairness” will cause you to alter your opinion?

    I’m a long time Army National Guard member in Vermont, so I’m following this debate closely.

    I’m all for “fairness” and “transparency”. In return, I would hope that you are willing to accept the results of the process, even if they don’t go your way, rather than making innuendos and unsubstantiated allegations. From the tone of your editorial, my guess is that’s too much to hope for.

    • Lee Stirling

      I think a lot of what the local F-35 debate hinges on is a matter of the “Haves” vs. the “Have-nots”. There are, no doubt, somewhat broad economic incentives for basing these aircraft at the Burlington airport, not just for the Guard. Those that stand to lose most are basically the “have-nots” of Chittenden County, the working poor and refugee populations living in (generally) lower-income Winooski, those who’ve bought or lived in the cheaper homes near the airport due to their relative (for Chittenden County) affordability. What harm could an investigation of the basing procedures do if everything is purportedly above board? But lets just not pretend that there would be the same level of support for the F-35 from local, state, and federal politicians if those most negatively effected weren’t the “have-nots”.

    • Christian Noll

      Dear Mr McKern,

      If I were Mr Leas, and I am not, I would respond to your questions in the following manner.

      3)and No

      The Army and Air Guards are here to protect us, period.

      The mission of the Vermont Army and Air Guards needs to change back to its original mission of helping its citizens (i.e., your employer) with natural disasters, re:Irene, and especially with search and rescue, something the Vermont State Police desperately needs help with re: Levi Duclose.

      The latter is something that both Army and Air Guards are specially equipped to help with. They have helicopters with night vision and are able to deploy search and rescue air units to people who need help.

      Turning our guardsmen and women into offensive fighting forces to be deployed overseas for the purposes of fulfilling our own governments imperialist hogwash is bull.

      Mr Leas is correct and Senator Leahy needs to return to his constituency and not the crony military leaders in Washington.

      You need to do your job better Mr McKern. You are here to protect us, not put us in harms way.

      This is a sad new direction our country is heading in and it unfortunate that our peaceful tax paying citizens must now muster up enough force to leverage defending themselves against the very military that is supposed to protect us.

    • Ray Gonda

      Mr Kern,

      You stated in effect that that race pivoted on the F-35 issue. I disagreed for multiple reasons. Here is some more of the story of the South Burlington City Council election.

      The numbers speak for themselves.

      Campaign Expenditures from city Clerks’s Office.

      Losing incumbents:

      Engles $1394 + Dooley $ 3901 = $ 5302

      Winning challengers:

      Nowak $5043 + Shaw $6,590 = $11,633

      So the incumbents were outspent by over 2:1.

      In addition a political PAC, PamPac, put together by another city councillor Pam Mackenzie spent money on behalf of the challengers for full and 1/4 page ads in the South Burlington “The Other Paper” and in the Sunday edition of the Burlington Free Press which likely exceeded $7000 total.

      That outspent, by far, ads done by individuals on
      behalf the incumbents. The challengers got started much earlier and became much better organized much earlier than the incumbents.

      So the incumbents were outspent by perhaps as high as three to one. Those number will eventually come out. Political PACs apparently do not have to disclose contributions under $100 as part of campaign finance law in Vermont for local offices.

      I think it is a sad day for Vermont when such PACs are formed for local elections.

  • Ray Gonda

    Mr McKern,

    1) – Elevating the Guard prior to the F-35 basing issue simply demonstrates Senator Leahy’s promotion of the Guard, which makes it all the more reasonable to expect political pressure to base them here. So your point is no point at all.

    2) – I live in the Chamberlin district of South Burlington right in the middle of the 65dB military jet zone. I am very acutely aware of the various issues surrounding the vote for city council members. The F-35 was the lowest priority for voters, if a priority at all in that election. There were at least four or five far more important issues for voters.

    Over a month ago I had published a piece in the magazine demonstrating that the majority of the residents in this district and probably everywhere in the 65dB zone are opposed to the basing of the F-35 here. So your assumptions about why the change of councillors do not wash at all. If it were a vote strictly about the F-35 those councillors who lost would have won.

    3 – My father, three brothers and I all participated in the all of the 20th century wars from and including WWI to the first Persian Gulf war. Of the retired military personnel who live in the Chamberlain district (about a dozen) they are fairly evenly divided between support for the F-35 basing and opposition to it. So this is not a pacifist vs pro-military issue though I can understand objections to the F-35 beyond the basing issue itself.

    I too follow this debate closely am indeed am part of it for obvious reasons.

    If you are all for fairness and transparency why do not you beat on the Air Force to release their scoring methodology and scoring sheets to the public to include all the bases for comparison to Burlington Airport detailed scoring?

    I guess that is too much to hope for!

  • William McKern

    Ray Gonda:

    So the fact that the idea of elevating the NGB Chief dates from years BEFORE the F-35 basing debate is proof that the two are tied together? I don’t think you can defend that claim.

    Did someone say in 1997 “here’s the deal: I support making the NGB Chief a four star now, and SIXTEEN YEARS from now, you support me on where to base the F-35.”

    Pardon me if I find that notion a little far-fetched.

    • Ray Gonda

      Mr McKern,

      Did I say proof??? I don’t think so. You know as well as I do that Senator Leahy has been a staunch supporter and promoter of the Guard. And I hope by now most American understand how political influence works.

      In Washington innuendo is what greases the tracks of political influence. Why do you think incumbents are normally sent back to Washington – because of the importance and effectiveness of that influence. It’s certainly not all innuendo but that does plays a role. It also leaves no paper trail.

  • William McKern

    Ray — I should be clear. I’m not necessarily for or against basing the F-35 in Vermont — yet.

    I am for transparency, and I think the details of the methods used to make the decision ought to be made public.

    At the same time, I am against the use of innuendo and supposition to argue one side of the question, particularly when it’s done by people who have their minds made up already, and aren’t going to be swayed by facts or logic unless it gets them the result they already know they want.

    • Ray Gonda

      Mr Kearns,

      I myself have mixed feeling about the F-35 program but clearly I oppose their being based here.

      There is a much larger and much more important national issue here. That is the careful strategy of getting defense programs and jobs put into every state possible – the defense establishment, which includes defense industries, congressmen as well as the Pentagon attains great power such that the so called military-industrial complex (MIC) becomes an institution that becomes a power to itself with little anyone can do to remedy it. It means that citizens though having a vote are nonetheless powerless to change things. We are and will continue to become the world’s largest arms supplier.

      We have to ask ourselves,is this what we want for our nation where the MIC provides so many jobs spread across so many states that we cannot afford to change things if we wanted to. The jobs, jobs, jobs outcry back home when any program is cut assures us our congressmen will be impotent to cut back on spending. As a result we will continue to increase spending on a weapons systems and most likely unwarranted future wars.

      This is little different in effect than the Banks being “too big to fail”. We got robbed blind from them.

      And history shows that when too much is spent on military over a long period of time it starves the national economy of the necessary capital for entrepreneurship and innovations and infrastructure improvements and repair necessary for a return to a healthy economy.

  • J. Scott Cameron

    Holy Moly! Important decisions can be subject to political influence? People who serve in government for years and rise, and rise to positions of power, are willing and able to use that power in furtherance of the perceived interests of their consistuents? When did this happen?

    In times like these it is difficult not to write satire. Decimus Junius Juvenalis

    James Mark Leas,wake up and smell the coffee. You’re not concerned about the fact that Senator Leahy has political influence, or that he may have used it to benefit his constituents. All you care about is that he may have done so in support of an issue with which you do not agree. Sorry man.

    • Ray Gonda

      Mr Cameron,

      Are the ones he helps only the ones that count. What about the rest of us? You must be new to this issue. Are you aware that Senator Leahy has refused to meet with opponents of the basing of the F-35 here including myself.

      In this case Senator Leahy is harming many of his constituents. Ask me! I live in the noise zone and I have talked to at least 180 of my neighbors and a majority of them agree. We will take a loss of housing value. \
      also concerning health impacts the noise gets some children to screaming whenever the jets take off. this has already been satisfactorily documented in public meetings called by concerned citizens.

      Windows have been know to be broken by the jets that preceded the F-16s and some homeowners are convinced that the noise has damaged their homes by cracks in the ceilings and interior walls.

      Are we going to return to those days with the F-35 which is likely to be 4x louder than the current F-16s? Are we going to advance our cause of national security by placing hundreds more homes and perhaps thousands of more people into the zone the Air Force considers “not fit for residential use”? And, at that, with jets that are made primarily for attack in foreign lands, not for national defense at home?

      It seems so when people like you look at one one side of this issue.

  • J. Scott Cameron

    Ray Gonda – You don’t get it either. I don’t care one way or the other about the issue. Sorry. I was commenting on the Op-Ed Opinion authored by Mr. Leas. All of our elected officials use their influence for the benefit of their constituents. Making the claim that doing so in this instance is some kind of malfeasance is ridiculous.

    If Leahy used his admittedly great infuence to crush the F-35 program, you and Leas would both be praising him. But since he is on the other side of your issue in this case, you attack him as an evil influence peddler. I can respect your efforts to oppose this or any other issue based on the facts. When you attack Leahy not for making a bad decision but for simply using his influence in support of an outcome with which you disagree I can only fall back on satire.