WASHINGTON — In the 14 years since he left government, former CIA director Robert M. Gates has jetted cross-country to advise 10 different companies, assessing issues as varied as Saudi oil drilling, mutual fund performance and restaurant sales at Romano's Macaroni Grill.
"I first sought him out because I considered him to be of exceptional good judgment and intelligence," said Rodney B. Mitchell, president of the Mitchell Group, a Houston investment firm that used Gates as a senior advisor. Impressed with Gates' recent performance as president of Texas A&M University, Mitchell believed Gates offered "pragmatism" to a firm that aims "to exploit the rapidly changing dynamics of world energy markets."
But as Gates awaits Senate confirmation as President Bush's secretary of Defense, ethics watchdogs worry about the revolving door between government and private business that allowed Gates to align himself with defense contractors, investment houses and a global drilling company involved with Vice President Dick Cheney's former employer, Halliburton Co.
Companies with which Gates has been affiliated have secured hefty no-bid Pentagon contracts, and "you have to wonder if these companies will continue to get around bidding requirements once Gates is secretary," said Alex Knott, political director of the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington-based watchdog group.
Common Cause, another nonprofit watchdog, believes Gates should take steps now to insulate himself, including placing his stock holdings -- some of which he acquired in return for board service -- in a blind trust to avoid conflicts of interest with companies seeking federal work.
A criticized administration
The Bush administration has been dogged by allegations that past corporate affiliations of administration officials led to favored treatment in federal contract awards. Much of the criticism has focused on Cheney's relationship with Houston oil services giant Halliburton, which has secured $1.5 billion in no-bid contracts for reconstruction in Iraq. Cheney was the firm's chief executive and retained Halliburton stock when he became vice president.
The Senate Armed Services Committee required outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to divest himself of defense-related stocks to avoid conflicts. But it allowed him to keep holdings worth as much as $25 million in Gilead Sciences Inc., a California company that developed a drug used to treat bird flu.
Gilead, for which Rumsfeld served as board chairman, has seen its stock prices soar with sales to the Pentagon and other government customers. Rumsfeld, who through the Pentagon has denied any conflict, reported $5 million in Gilead capital gains in 2005.
In preparation for hearings set to begin next week, the armed services panel has asked Gates to complete a standard questionnaire about his corporate affiliations and stock holdings. Gates, in a 1994 opinion piece, compared the process of Senate confirmation to a "root canal," warning prospective public officials to prepare for scrutiny of every aspect of their personal finances and corporate relationships.
Financial disclosure forms filed in recent years with the Texas Ethics Commission show that Gates juggled various corporate relationships with his job as Texas A&M president. The university last year paid him $525,000 in salary, and he nearly doubled his income through outside directorships, Securities and Exchange Commission documents show.
Gates' personal holdings have grown substantially since he left government, when he had no more than $165,000 in savings and retirement accounts. Now, he has $1.1 million in holdings with Fidelity Investments, as well as stock holdings in some of the companies where he has served as director.
Links to contractors
Gates' relationships with defense companies date to 1993, soon after he left government after 27 years in intelligence work. He joined the board of SAIC, which is a contractor for the Pentagon, CIA and other federal agencies. Gates' brief tenure came as the company weathered a Justice Department investigation into defense contract irregularities that it eventually settled for $2.5 million.
Gates later served on the advisory board for VoteHere, an electronic voting machine firm tied to SAIC, and on the boards of defense contractors TRW, now part of Northrop Grumann Corp., and the Massachusetts-based Charles Stark Draper Laboratory.
Gates' knowledge of international issues won him a place on the board of Houston-based Parker Drilling Co., a global firm with 3,000 employees and operations in 10 countries. Gates earned $52,000 last year from the company, which values his "unique background and experience," spokeswoman Rose Bratton said. A Parker proxy statement reports that Gates owns 12,000 shares -- worth more than $115,000 at Friday's stock price -- with rights to acquire 60,000 more.