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US: Life Was Lost in Maelstrom of Suspicion

by Ginger Thompson and Eric SchmittNew York Times
December 4th, 2007

Friends of Charles D. Riechers, whose Air Force career took him from the back of a B-52 cockpit to the front of the service's $30 billion procurement office, said something was telling in the fact that his suicide note to his boss was typed. They described it as an effort to set the record straight by a meticulous man who felt deeply misunderstood.

"I first and foremost express my deepest regret for a situation based on my na´vetÚ," Mr. Riechers's note read, according to a person familiar with it. "I've created a scandal."

On Oct. 14, neighbors found the body of Mr. Riechers, a 47-year-old husband and father, in his garage in Loudoun County, Va., just outside Washington, dead apparently from the fumes of his car. Instead of clarity, though, Mr. Riechers's last act cast a cloud of suspicion over the Air Force, threatening to plunge a service still struggling to emerge from one of its worst scandals into another quagmire.

Mr. Riechers, who was the second-highest ranking official at the Air Force procurement office, had come under scrutiny by the Senate Armed Services Committee after a news report that said the Air Force had arranged for him to be paid by a private contractor during the two months he awaited White House approval for the job.

The report, which came three years to the day after Mr. Riechers's predecessor, Darleen Druyun, was sentenced to prison on corruption charges, prompted accusations by several contractors that Mr. Riechers had favored a competitor. It also led to inquiries by the Government Accountability Office and the Pentagon inspector general, which are continuing.

The Air Force, which stood by Mr. Riechers (pronounced REE-kers), said there was nothing illegal about the contract arrangements it had used to hire him. Air Force officials also said they have found no evidence of wrongdoing in the work that Mr. Riechers did after being appointed in January.

When pressed to explain what they believe pushed Mr. Riechers to take his own life, Air Force officials said he was an engineering wizard - with a penchant for writing computer software code and reading Wired magazine - who fell victim to the ruthlessness of political Washington. In the wake of his death, the Air Force has begun an aggressive campaign to clear his reputation and its own.

Privately, however, officials acknowledged that the inquiries surrounding Mr. Riechers have uncovered questionable practices in a proliferating and poorly regulated side of Pentagon procurement that involves contracting for temporary consultants.

The contracts, which allow the government to hire private employees for short-term assignments, have long frustrated federal employees who argue that private contractors are better paid for the same work and that such arrangements allow federal authorities to hide the real size of the government work force. Now, mounting Congressional pressure over such contracts has forced the Pentagon to re-examine the way it uses them.

"Here we had some Air Force official telling a contractor to pay somebody $13,400 a month for work not being performed for that company," Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, said in an Oct. 4 hearing by the Armed Services Committee. "I think it makes you ask, 'What is going on in the contracting world?'"

Mr. Riechers, a native of Ohio who was known to his friends as Chuck, seemed to thrive in the contracting world. Colleagues said that his engineering background - with degrees from the University of Michigan and California Polytechnic University - and his experience as a combat navigator gave him a unique ability to communicate the needs of troops to scientists developing new technologies. He flew radar-jamming missions in the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

His reputation as a straight arrow gave him a boost of credibility that the Air Force needed after the scandal involving Ms. Druyun. She steered contracts to Boeing in exchange for jobs with the company for herself, her daughter and her son-in-law.

"You don't find a guy like Chuck Riechers very often," said Sue C. Payton, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.

When she approached Mr. Riechers about becoming her principal deputy, Ms. Payton said, he was considering several offers from private companies. The Air Force, she said in an interview, would not be able to hire him until the White House approved his appointment.

Not wanting to lose her top candidate because of a sluggish bureaucracy, Ms. Payton arranged for Mr. Riechers to be put on temporary contract.

Mr. Riechers worked for the Air Force, essentially doing the job for which he was seeking clearance, but was paid by a Pennsylvania nonprofit, Commonwealth Research Institute, Ms. Payton said. His monthly salary was about $13,400.

"I got a paycheck from them," Mr. Riechers said in an interview with The Washington Post, referring to his responsibilities to Commonwealth Research. "They did my benefits, and all that kind of stuff. But I really didn't do anything specifically for C.R.I."

The report published by The Post on Oct. 1 set off a political firestorm. Commonwealth Research and its parent organization, the Concurrent Technologies Corporation, were well-known beneficiaries of Congressional spending projects, known as earmarks. The companies have won hundreds of millions of dollars in government contracts for work that included consulting on counterterrorism, developing software and designing ejection seats for pilots.

Reports that one of those contracts had been used to pay Mr. Riechers prompted a formal protest by the Pemco Aviation Group, which a month earlier had lost a $1.1 billion bid for Air Force work to Boeing. In an amendment to its protest, Pemco Aviation, based in Alabama, charged Mr. Riechers with favoring Boeing, which was a client of Commonwealth Research.

Independent procurement experts said that the payments to Mr. Riechers by Commonwealth Research, while legal, circumvented the spirit of the regulations governing such service contracts. And they said that the proliferation of service contracts, often buried several layers deep in larger contracts, had sharply decreased accountability.

"If at the top, the message that's sent is, 'We're going to bend the rules to our advantage,' the message is clearly understood and creates a culture of attempting to avoid the rules," said Steven L. Schooner, a procurement law expert at George Washington University Law School.

Neither the Department of Defense nor the Air Force tracks the number of employees working under the various classifications of in-house service contracts.

Air Force officials estimated that within that group, the number of workers on contracts similar to that of Mr. Riechers was in the low thousands. The Air Force estimated spending about $350 million for such employees in fiscal 2006, up from $205 million six years ago.

But even senior Air Force officials acknowledged that it was unusual to use a service contract for someone awaiting final clearance for a senior civilian government position, as was the case with Mr. Riechers.

"In retrospect, I regret this so much," Ms. Payton said, holding back tears. "If I had let him go, if I hadn't been so aggressive about bringing good people in, the guy would be alive today."

Beyond the headlines, Mr. Riechers's mood swung from surprised to angry to ashamed.

"I remember asking him, 'Have you been Googling yourself?" said a friend of his, John Scott. "He made a face at me that indicated he had. I told him, 'Just stop.'"

Air Force colleagues described Mr. Riechers's emotional state as gloomy the day that The Post story was published, lifted when colleagues reassured him that interest in the report would not last, down the day his name surfaced in Congress and up when colleagues reassured him that he would not lose his job.

On Oct. 12, government auditors announced that Pemco Aviation had named Mr. Riechers as part of its protest over the Air Force's decision to award an airplane maintenance contract to Boeing. Mr. Riechers was found dead two days later. He left notes for his wife, Colleen, and for Ms. Payton.

According to two people familiar with the note to Ms. Payton, Mr. Riechers apologized repeatedly for giving rise to a "doomsday scenario," in which "the Darleen Druyun replacement unit" had become the target of a new investigation.

There is, of course, no way to know everything that was going through Mr. Riechers's mind the day he died. Friends and Air Force colleagues to Mr. Riechers said they did not believe he had a history of emotional or mental health problems. They said they were not aware that he had any serious personal issues.

Mr. Riechers's wife and mother refused interview requests.

Friends said he was devoted to his wife. Mr. Riechers bragged that his son, Christopher, was as passionate about music as he was about space shuttle operations manuals. He and his wife had just celebrated Christopher's engagement and were making plans for the day they would become grandparents.

Mr. Scott and John Wilcox, another friend, said Mr. Riechers often told them he never expected to accomplish all that he had. And the friends said he feared his reputation was ruined.

"I remember Chuck saying to me, 'I keep playing this thing over and over in my mind, and I don't think I did anything wrong,'" Mr. Wilcox said.

Ms. Payton echoed that thought. "Of all the problems I've seen Chuck solve," she said, "this was a problem I'm not sure he could solve from an engineering, intellectual, academic, technical point of view."




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