Before he became lionized as the “only adult in the room” capable of standing up to President Trump, General James Mattis was quite like any other brass scoping out a lucrative second career in the defense industry. And as with other military giants parlaying their four stars into a cushy boardroom chair or executive suite, he pushed and defended a sub-par product while on both sides of the revolving door. Unfortunately for everyone involved, that contract turned out to be an expensive fraud and a potential health hazard to the troops.
According to a recent report by the Project on Government Oversight, 25 generals, nine admirals, 43 lieutenant generals, and 23 vice admirals retired to become lobbyists, board members, executives, or consultants for the defense industry between 2008 and 2018. They are part of a much larger group of 380 high-ranking government officials and congressional staff who shifted into the industry in that time.
To get a sense of the demand, according to POGO, which had to compile all of this information through Freedom of Information requests, there were 625 instances in 2018 alone in which the top 20 defense contractors (think Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin) hired senior DoD officials for high-paying jobs—90 percent of which could be described as “influence peddling.”
Back to Mattis. In 2012, while he was head of Central Command, the Marine General pressed the Army to procure and deploy blood testing equipment from a Silicon Valley company called Theranos. He communicated that he was having success with this effort directly to Theranos’s chief executive officer. Even though an Army health unit tried to terminate the contract due to it’s not meeting requirements, according to POGO, Mattis kept the pressure up. Luckily, it was never used on the battlefield.
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise but upon retirement in 2013, Mattis asked a DoD counsel about the ethics guiding future employment with Theranos. They advised against it. So Mattis went to serve on its board instead for a $100,000 salary. Two years after Mattis quit to serve as Trump’s Pentagon chief in 2016, the two Theranos executives he worked with were indicted for “massive” fraud, perpetuating a “multi-million dollar scheme to defraud investors, doctors and patients,” and misrepresenting their product entirely. It was a fake.
But assuming this was Mattis’s only foray into the private sector would be naive. When he was tapped for defense secretary—just three years after he left the military—he was worth upwards of $10 million. In addition to his retirement pay, which was close to $15,000 a month at the time, he received $242,000 as a board member, plus as much as $1.2 million in stock options in General Dynamics, the Pentagon’s fourth largest contractor. He also disclosed payments from other corporate boards, speech honorariums—including $20,000 from defense heavyweight Northrop Grumman—and a whopping $410,000 from Stanford University’s public policy think tank the Hoover Institution for serving as a “distinguished visiting fellow.”
Never for a moment think that Mattis won’t land softly after he leaves Washington—if he leaves at all.
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