Earlier this week, Eli Lake reported that the four-star Air Force general in charge of US Space Command told a Congressional panel that the White House pressured him to change his testimony to favor a company that shelled out donations for Democrats. LightSquared wants to press forward on a project that the military fears will create serious interference with GPS systems, and General William Shelton was going to address those concerns with Congress before the White House tried to push him into saying a few nice words on behalf of their sponsor. A reminder:
The four-star Air Force general who oversees U.S. Space Command walked into a highly secured room on Capitol Hill a week ago to give a classified briefing to lawmakers and staff, and dropped a surprise. Pressed by members, Gen. William Shelton said the White House tried to pressure him to change his testimony to make it more favorable to a company tied to a large Democratic donor. …
According to officials familiar with the situation, Shelton’s prepared testimony was leaked in advance to the company. And the White House asked the general to alter the testimony to add two points: that the general supported the White House policy to add more broadband for commercial use; and that the Pentagon would try to resolve the questions around LightSquared with testing in just 90 days. Shelton chafed at the intervention, which seemed to soften the Pentagon’s position and might be viewed as helping the company as it tries to get the project launched, the officials said.
As it turns out, LightSquared is more than just a Democratic donor. The Lonely Conservative points us to a July 2011 article at The Huffington Post, in which it seems that Barack Obama himself has a personal interest in LightSquared:
When the Federal Communications Commission granted LightSquared Inc. expedited approval to launch a new wireless Internet service, some powerful voices in Washington expressed alarm, including the Pentagon and one-third of the U.S. Senate.
LightSquared’s bold $14 billion plan, its detractors said, could cripple GPS systems and threaten aviation safety, disrupt military and rescue operations and interfere with high-tech farming equipment and the everyday navigation devices used by millions. …
- Several major Democratic campaign contributors and longtime Obama supporters have held investments in the company and its affiliates during its tangled decade of existence. They include Obama’s good friend and political donor Donald Gips, his former White House personnel chief, who now serves as U.S. ambassador to South Africa. Records show that Gips maintained an interest, worth as much as $500,000, as the FCC was weighing LightSquared’s request.
- Obama himself was an early investor and came to the presidency a firm believer in expanding broadband. He remains close to other early investors, like Gips and investment manager George W. Haywood, inviting some to luxe social events at the White House and more intimate gatherings like a night of poker and beer.
Presidents put their investments into blind trusts when they take office in order to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest. Well, most modern Presidents do, anyway. It seems that Obama considers himself an exception to this rule, or at the very least he did until April 2010. The Washington Post’s Michael Shear reported at that time that Obama had refused to establish a blind trust:
In fact, President Obama has rejected the approach taken by most of his predecessors in the modern era.
His personal wealth — which is rapidly growing — is not shielded from his view.
Officially, the answer is that the president wanted more transparency in his personal finances — fitting in with his pledges to be the most open White House in history.
“The choice not to have a blind trust is an effort to be transparent about where his money is kept, and the public can see his latest financial disclosure documents, which we have made public and accessible on the Web site,” a senior White House official said.
Well, sort of. The records are not on line, but the White House website does have a request page, which promises to send a PDF of the financial disclosure forms quickly. I’ve requested a copy and will check to see whether Obama still holds any position with LightSquared. I’m going to guess no, only because it appears from Shear’s article that Obama converted most of his holdings into bonds in order to avoid the blind trust.
However, as the HuffPo report notes, that’s not the only problem in this scenario. It’s clear that even if Obama divested himself of LightSquared at some point, he has remained close to the other investors. If the White House pressured Shelton in order to benefit these investors, then we need to find out whether Obama gave that order himself on behalf of his cronies.