Leah Esper, the wife of President Trump’s new pick for Secretary of Defense, works as an executive for an organization that lobbies on defense spending legislation and counts top government contractors as members, The Young Turks has found.
Esper’s husband Mark worked for the defense contractor Raytheon from 2010 to 2017, when President Trump nominated him to be secretary of the Army. Raytheon, one of the nation’s largest defense contractors, receives billions in contracts from the Pentagon.
Asked if Leah Esper’s position posed any concerns about a conflict of interest, the Pentagon did not immediately respond.
Leah Esper has been a regional executive director at the Design-Build Institute of America (DBIA), a trade group for military and other contractors, since 2009, according to IRS disclosure forms.
DBIA’s tax disclosure forms make no mention of her before her sudden appointment in 2009 to executive director for its Mid-Atlantic Region branch, which covers Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia. Her only prior professional experience was working as a golf instructor, according to a LinkedIn page in her name. The page does not list any other employment.
Neither DBIA nor Leah Esper responded to multiple requests for comment from TYT about whether she held any jobs relevant to government contracting prior to joining DBIA and whether she engaged in lobbying activities.
Mark Esper, however, had years of high-level experience in the defense world when his wife joined DBIA.
Before joining Raytheon — where he would work as a registered lobbyist, vice president of government relations, until 2017 — Mark Esper served as deputy assistant secretary of defense under Pres. George W. Bush, House Armed Services Committee policy director, a senior national security staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and executive vice president of the Aerospace Industries Association.
“We moved four times in five years, but she always made a home for our growing family wherever the Army sent us,” Esper said of his wife during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of the Army. “After I transitioned from active duty on the Army Staff to the Virginia Guard, she shouldered additional parenting duties during those long drill weekends, annual training, and everything in between. This would continue for several more years, during my various jobs in the Senate, the House, and as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, until my retirement from the Army Reserve in 2007.”
Two years later, his wife became executive director at the DBIA’s Mid-Atlantic Region, where she remains the highest compensated employee, with an annual salary of $30,960 for 20 hours per week of work, according to the group’s most recent tax filing.
Individual members in that region of the DBIA include Moaz Khan, a representative of Raytheon, Mark Esper’s former employer.
DBIA’s other Mid-Atlantic members include representatives of numerous major government contractors. For example, DBIA Mid-Atlantic lists as “Industry Partners” KBR, formerly a subsidiary of Halliburton, and Clark Construction, a recipient of billions in government construction contracts.
Like Mark Esper, DBIA has spent years engaged in lobbying activities. From 2016 to 2018, DBIA shelled out over $120,000 in lobbying, disclosure forms show. In addition to running its own political action committee (PAC), DBIA worked with several lobbying firms over the years before opting to run its lobbying in-house. Louis Jenny, DBIA’s vice president of advocacy and outreach, is a registered lobbyist who for years has lobbied on behalf of the organization in defense-related matters.
Every year from 2014 to 2018, DBIA has lobbied the federal government on the National Defense Authorization Act, which authorizes the Pentagon’s annual military budget.
The Pentagon has issued many contracts to DBIA licensed contractors. Last June, the Defense Department awarded a DBIA consultant an $83,000 contract.
DBIA is a tax-exempt trade group focused on promoting the relatively new “design-build” approach to construction, and to do so employs lobbyists, legislation, conferences, educational materials, and certifications.
In the past, the Pentagon typically would draw up contracts for projects and then solicit bids — a process called “design-bid-build.” DBIA introduced a new approach, in which each contractor individually drafts and proposes the contracts themselves — “design-build.”
Proponents of design-build contend that the approach is both faster and less costly. According to DBIA’s website, design-build projects are delivered 102% times faster than traditional design-bid-build ones.
But critics maintain that, by producing multiple, distinct contracts that cannot easily be compared to each other, design-build opens the door to wasteful bid selections. Some law-enforcement officials say this has already happened.
In 2003, Los Angeles District Attorney Steve Cooley, issued an investigative report dissecting a controversial, multi-million-dollar design-build contract that was awarded to build a school called the Belmont Learning Complex.
The report says, “The design-build process carries grave potential for mischief and for undermining public confidence in the integrity of the process. Design-build does not make use of competitive bidding where prospective builders bid on the same design. Instead, each prospective builder offers its own unique solution with its own unique price.”
“LAUSD [LA Unified School District] used a ‘design-build’ approach because theoretically it was a faster and less costly way to complete the school project. The use of this approach, however, led to the selection of the most expensive plan submitted to the LAUSD. Belmont was LAUSD’s first experience with design-build school construction, and it later created controversy”
President Trump announced his intention to nominate Mark Esper for Defense Secretary after his previous choice, Patrick Shanahan, withdrew from the confirmation process amid allegations of domestic violence involving Shanahan’s ex-wife and son.
Ed. note: This article has been updated to include the terms of Leah Esper's employment.
Ken Klippenstein is a senior investigative reporter for TYT. He can be reached securely via Signal at 202-510-1268, on Twitter @kenklippenstein or via email: [email protected].
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