Leas: Quite a pair of stings for F-35 basing

Editor’s note: This piece is by James Marc Leas, a patent lawyer in South Burlington.

The Boston Globe report that Pentagon officials “fudged” numbers in their F-35 base selection process was only the first of two near simultaneous blows to F-35 basing in Burlington. That story so dominated the news that the other equally devastating blow to first round F-35 basing in Burlington was completely upstaged and overlooked by all the local news media: The Air Force said that its entire fleet of F-16s will be upgraded and its life extended.

The first sting: “Fudge-gate”

The report of “fudging” appeared on the front page of the Boston Globe on Sunday, April 14, and was written by the Globe’s respected Pentagon reporter, Bryan Bender. The story quoted a Pentagon official making four key points:

1. “The base-selection process was deliberately ‘fudged’ by military brass so that Leahy’s home state would win.”

2. “Unfortunately Burlington was selected even before the scoring process began.”

3. “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.”

4. “If the scoring had been done correctly Burlington would not have been rated higher” [than the other National Guard locations under consideration by the Air Force].

Sen. Patrick Leahy is the most senior senator of all, and he holds sway over the Air Force budget. His office forcefully asserts that Sen. Leahy “made no attempt to influence the process.”

Regardless, applying influence is one thing. For top Pentagon officials to “fudge” the numbers in a supposedly objective scoring process is another.

The Globe “Fudge-gate” story was just the beginning. During the next several days more information was revealed as “Fudge-gate” stories appeared on all the Burlington local TV stations, Vermont Public Radio, Seven Days, the Burlington Free Press, and VTDigger.

After releasing the scoring sheet for Burlington, without logical explanation, the Air Force rejected a Freedom of Information Act request to release the scoring sheets for all the other sites considered in its scoring process. An appeal of that rejection was filed in Federal Court by Vermont attorney Jim Dumont on May 4, 2013.

The Burlington Free Press article added important details, including quotes from Sen. Leahy’s spokesman and from Frank Cioffi, president of the Greater Burlington Industrial Corporation (GBIC). Their strenuous denials unintentionally confirmed the seriousness of the charges.

The scoring sheet for Burlington shows Burlington getting six points where it should not have. Burlington got three points for answering “no” (leaving the box unchecked) to the question, “Is there incompatible development in clear zones and/or accident potential zones?” Burlington got another three points for answering “no” to the question, “Is there incompatible development in the noise contours about 65 dB DNL?”

Sen. Bernie Sanders asked the Air Force to release the scoring sheet after a front page Burlington Free Press article, “Councilor: ‘Grave mistakes’ in ranking Burlington for F-35,” published on July 13, 2012, quoted a Pentagon official telling South Burlington City Council member Rosanne Greco that the supposedly objective base selection process included scoring sheets, and that the scoring sheet for Burlington had numbers out of line with reality.

After releasing the scoring sheet for Burlington, without logical explanation, the Air Force rejected a Freedom of Information Act request to release the scoring sheets for all the other sites considered in its scoring process. An appeal of that rejection was filed in Federal Court by Vermont attorney Jim Dumont on May 4, 2013.

The second sting: Air Force is upgrading and extending life of F-16s

Appearing just two days after the Boston Globe article, a seemingly neutral fact announced in an Air Force Times article busted all rationale for Burlington to continue being in the first basing round for the F-35. According to the Air Force Times, the Air Force is upgrading its whole inventory of F-16s, adding eight to 10 years to their lifetime.

Thus, the underlying pretext for rushing to replace the Vermont Guard’s F-16s in the very first F-35 basing round evaporated. With dozens of F-35 basing rounds anticipated, the Burlington Air National Guard can delay F-35 basing until a much later basing round while continuing to fly its upgraded F-16s. Even better, the Air Guard can use the time to find a mission compatible with the residential character of the Burlington airport.

Unless, of course, any serious hope for basing the F-35 in South Burlington depends on the fudged numbers in the scoring sheets and F-35 sponsors don’t think they will get another chance to fudge.

Here is how the April 16 Air Force Times reported the end of all argument for the notion that Burlington must urgently get the F-35 during its very first basing round:

The Air Force plans to upgrade all 1,018 of its F-16s and 175 F-15C/D Eagles to keep them flying until the F-35A joint strike fighter is fully operational and new weapons systems on the F-22 Raptor are installed, according to the 2014 budget request released April 10. In the fiscal 2014 budget request, the Air Force states the service life extension for all F-16s will add eight to 10 years to each airframe, along with upgrades to the fighter’s radars, cockpit displays and other communications interfaces.

Within the same week of those two bombshells, on April 18, the Burlington Free Press reported the Air Force announcement that it is delaying its final decision on first round F-35 basing until this fall.

The added months give plenty of time for a member of the Vermont congressional delegation, the governor, or the mayor of Burlington to ask the General Accounting Office, the Vermont attorney general, or the Chittenden County state’s attorney to appoint an independent and impartial investigator to examine the facts and issue a report on the Fudge-gate controversy before any final basing decision is made.

Were the scoring sheets fudged not just for Burlington but also at any of the other sites considered by the Air Force? What explains the intense push to base the F-35 at a densely populated commercial airport in Vermont? What happens if we “follow the money,” reminiscent of one of the most fruitful parts of the investigation of the Watergate scandal? Is the Vermont Air National Guard being used for purposes having nothing to do with its military mission?

Fudge-gate may not just be about pleasing the most powerful member of the U.S. Senate, Patrick Leahy. The reason the scoring sheets were fudged may have a big money connection, too. That connection will be described in a forthcoming article.

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