Officials on Capitol Hill said they remained baffled Monday by the abrupt implosion of President Obama's second pick to oversee the nation's transportation security, and are wondering why the nomination was pulled before they could get a clear explanation about a questionable $100 million contract that went to retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Harding.
Harding withdrew from consideration Friday after aides to Congressional Republicans and a Washington Post reporter began asking the White House to answer questions about a $100 million government contract reserved for "service-disabled veterans" that Harding's consulting firm had landed. He won the contract by identifying the disorder "sleep apnea" as his disability. The contract, for work related to biometric identification, was set aside for firms owned by service disabled veterans, the Post reported.
"At the end of the day I don't know why he withdrew," one senior congressional aide said. "The sleep apnea thing might be completely legitimate. There might be a service-based reason for that. He's a veteran. I don't presume to know what the causes of that are. That was something we were going to go back and look at. For all intents and purposes, this nomination was proceeding. He decided to withdraw from the process while we were still asking the fundamental questions about his qualifications."
Harding did not return calls from ABC News Monday. According to a Defense Department web site, "A Service-Disabled Veteran is a person who served in the active military, naval, or air service, and who was discharged or released under conditions other than dishonorable, and whose disability was incurred or aggravated in line of duty in the active military, naval, or air service."
Congressional aides said they learned of Harding's disability claim during the feverish period of vetting after the White House named Harding to head the Transportation Security Administration March 8. There was some pressure to move fast because the TSA post has been vacant for so long. Harding was the administration's second pick for the job. The first, Erroll Southers, a former FBI agent, withdrew in January after Congress raised questions about whether he had inappropriately accessed a federal database to gather information about his former wife's new boyfriend.
Congressional staffers and White House officials had been in frequent contact over other concerns about Harding's consulting work that arose during the three week period while his nomination was alive. Already, there had been questions about the $6 million Iraq interrogations contract Harding's firm had with the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he had once worked. The senators wanted to know about the audit that found Harding's firm had over-billed the government by more than $1 million and had been forced to repay the money.
Harding had addressed those questions during two senate committee hearings, though. They had largely been explained, and would probably not have derailed Harding's nomination.
"Based on today's hearing and my review of the record, I believe General Harding has adequately addressed my concerns regarding his former firm's contract with the Defense Department," Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) said in a statement after one of the hearings on the nomination. A spokeswoman for the chairman of the committee, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), said that he "was satisfied with the General's responses to multiple questions about the contract that were posed to him at today's hearing."
The fresh questions about Harding's decision to identify sleep apnea as a service disability were simply an extension of what congressional aides thought was a reasonable, even swift, review of Obama's pick.
"The senate was making a good faith effort to review the background of the nominee," one congressional aide said, speaking on the condition he not be named.
Over the weekend, a senior White House official defended the vetting of Harding, saying the counsel's office has nearly a dozen lawyers working with the Justice Department and the FBI to scrub the backgrounds of nominees who need senate confirmation.
No matter how much work is done to unearth every detail about a nominee, "the process is still subject to the vagaries of memory and available documentation, especially if the issue is years' old," one senior administration official said. "No amount of resources can fully address that."
But the White House has said little about the $100 million contract that led Harding to withdraw. And Harding has not volunteered any answer.
His public statement, released by the White House, offered no details: "I feel that the distractions caused by my work as a defense contractor would not be good for this administration nor for the Department of Homeland Security," it said.