LETTER FROM WASHINGTON  |  DANA WILKIE
Someone to turn to

July 17, 2006

WASHINGTON – When complaints fall on deaf ears: When an Air Force reservist from San Diego got fed up with a colonel she claimed made her work situation intolerable, she turned to a woman with a bit of clout on military affairs – Rep. Susan Davis.

The San Diego Democrat began making inquires into Brenda Portwood's complaint that Col. Lonnie W. Smith, a senior intelligence official at U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Fla., abused his authority by improperly suspending her security clearance and forcing her to take unnecessary mental health tests.

“Our office simply acted as a liaison (for) Brenda,” said Davis spokesman Aaron Hunter, whose boss sits on the House Armed Services Committee, along with fellow San Diegan Duncan Hunter, who is the panel's chairman. “She wrote up (a) request for an inquiry and we forwarded it” to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Portwood is an Air Force chief master sergeant – one of the highest enlisted posts in the military – with nearly 30 years of service and, according to a Tampa Tribune report, glowing references.

She first complained about Smith through the U.S. Central Command's internal channels, claiming Smith questioned her relationships with colleagues, suspended her security clearance, forced her to take a mental health exam and suggested she consider ending her military career. She told the Tampa Tribune that she suspected Smith wanted to replace her with someone of his own choosing.

When her complaints went unheeded, she turned to Davis.

Last fall, the Defense Department's inspector general began a probe of Smith's management tactics, including an allegation that the colonel retaliated against a different reservist who complained that Smith improperly used his influence to find a job for his son-in-law, Stephen Baggett.

Federal nepotism laws bar public officials from hiring or influencing the hiring of relatives. Late last month, military officials escorted Smith from the Central Command headquarters where he worked, saying only that Smith had been reassigned.

While Davis spokesman Hunter said, “The office has received no indication that Brenda's request led to the probe of Smith,” something certainly happened to change the minds of military officials who up until last autumn had refused to take seriously the complaints of Portwood and others.

 

IT'S THAT SEASON

For sunscreen, yes, but also for federal dough. Various appropriations bills are moving through Congress. These typically enormous and thoroughly mind-numbing bills include the legislative equivalent of a federal check for thousands upon thousands of projects.

One of those checks, in the Senate-passed bill designed to fund the U.S. Interior Department, comes to nearly half a million dollars for Oceanside's Mission San Luis Rey, which needs at least $5 million for earthquake retrofitting and to upgrade electrical and well-water systems.

The 205-year-old mission church is built of wood and adobe – a fire disaster waiting to happen. The mission's well-water system can't really handle modern plumbing requirements or potential fires, like the one that erupted in 2003 in a brushy area on the mission's 55-acre grounds.

Thus, the mission needs to hook into city water lines, an expensive proposition. In addition, it must upgrade a 1920s-era electrical system that can't handle printers and fax machines, and it must repaint deteriorating adobe walls.

 

SOMETHING TO DO

Rep. Brian Bilbray finally has some work to do as the newly elected congressman from the 50th district. Last week, House leaders assigned the Carlsbad Republican to three committees – Armed Services, Government Reform and Veterans' Affairs.

Veterans' Affairs Committee chairman Steve Buyer, an Indiana Republican, noted Bilbray's history as a Navy brat who was born at Coronado Naval Air Station. “He brings to his constituency a unique level of experience, having served the people of San Diego County as a mayor, county supervisor and congressman,” Buyer said.

Bilbray will have a San Diego-area colleague on each panel: Fellow Republican Duncan Hunter is chairman of Armed Services and Democrat Susan Davis is a member, while Democrat Bob Filner is the ranking Democrat on Veterans' Affairs and Republican Darrell Issa is a subcommittee chairman on Government Reform.

Dana Wilkie is a Washington-based correspondent for Copley News Service and a longtime observer of California politics and social issues.

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