How Many More Mike Browns Are Out There?

A TIME inquiry finds that at top positions in some vital government agencies, the Bush Administration is putting connections before experience

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David Safavian didn't have much hands-on experience in government contracting when the Bush Administration tapped him in 2003 to be its chief procurement officer. A law-school internship helping the Pentagon buy helicopters was about the extent of it. Yet as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, Safavian, 38, was placed in charge of the $300 billion the government spends each year on everything from paper clips to nuclear submarines, as well as the $62 billion already earmarked for Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts. It was his job to ensure that the government got the most for its money and that competition for federal contracts--among companies as well as between government workers and private contractors--was fair. It was his job until he resigned on Sept. 16 and was subsequently arrested and charged with lying and obstructing a criminal investigation into Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff's dealings with the Federal Government.

Safavian spent the bulk of his pregovernment career as a lobbyist, and his nomination to a top oversight position stunned the tightly knit federal procurement community. A dozen procurement experts interviewed by TIME said he was the most unqualified person to hold the job since its creation in 1974. Most of those who held the post before Safavian were well-versed in the arcane world of federal contracts. "Safavian is a good example of a person who had great party credentials but no substantive credentials," says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit Washington watchdog group. "It's one of the most powerful positions in terms of impacting what the government does, and the kind of job--like FEMA director--that needs to be filled by a professional." Nevertheless, Safavian's April 2004 confirmation hearing before the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee (attended by only five of the panel's 17 members) lasted just 67 minutes, and not a single question was asked about his qualifications.

The committee did hold up Safavian's confirmation for a year, in part because of concerns about work his lobbying firm, Janus-Merritt Strategies, had done that he was required to divulge to the panel but failed to. The firm's filings showed that it represented two men suspected of links to terrorism (Safavian said one of the men was "erroneously listed," and the other's omission was an "inadvertent error") as well as two suspect African regimes. Ultimately, the committee and the full Senate unanimously approved Safavian for the post.

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