Inside a Pentagon loaded with drones, laser-guided missiles and bunker buster bombs, grease drip pans are hardly a sexy procurement item. But right now, the Army is paying a Kentucy company about $17,000 each for the pans designed to catch dripping lubricants from its Black Hawk helicopters.
It wasn't always that way. The maker of the helicopters used to handle such maintenance for their famed UH-60 Black Hawk choppers, Army spokesman Dov Schwartz said.
Then a congressman influential on appropriations matters stepped into the picture. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., used a $5 million earmark in a 2009 House spending bill to move the work over to a company in his congressional district called Phoenix Products Inc., whose executives just happen to be donors to Rogers' political action committee.
Since then, the Army has been awarding the contracts to Phoenix in what essentially has amounted to a sole-source competition. At the start, the contract wasn't open for competition. The past two years it has been competed, but Phoenix has been the only bid. The pans are made at the company's McKee, Ky., plant.
So far the Army has paid a total of $6.5 million for 374 of the drip pans, an average of about $17,400 each, according to federal procurement records. Rogers boasts he has helped secure more than $17 million in drip pan business for the company across the government.
But now a rival company has emerged, claiming it makes similar drip pans for Marine helicopters for less than $3,000 each, or about a fifth of the cost of the Army contract. But the Army won't give it the Blackhawk pan's specifications, so it can't submit a bid. The whole scenario has led the Pentagon inspector general, its internal spending watchdog, to open an inquiry.
For creating a less than optimum environment for ensuring taxpayers get the best possible deal, creating the appearance that home state budget politics are at play and prompting an investigation into the whole matter, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers wins this week's Golden Hammer, a Washington Guardian distinction awarded each week to an example of questionable spending. (Click here to see other recent Golden Hammer winners.)
Rogers, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, did not return repeated calls to his office seeking comment. He has previously defended his efforts to secure business for Phoenix Products, saying the drip pans help protect Army pilots from grease and that the company makes "outstanding products" that have "quality and durability which is essential to keeping this Army air workhorse maintenance free and ensuring these aircraft are safe."
The pans, installed in UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, are designed to prevent grease and lubricant from the engine rotors from dripping down into the main cabin.
Phoenix Products did not return a call seeking comment, but insists in a letter in The New York Times that the drip pan is a specialty "one-of-a-kind" piece of equipment for an expensive aircraft and that taxpayers are getting their money's worth.
"Our record speaks for itself," the letter said. "Since 1997, well in advance of any congressionally identified funding, the U.S. Army and Air Force, the Border Patrol, and several of our allied partners, began purchasing the Phoenix Products drip pan and continue to do so."
But Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), a citizen watchdog group whose complaint on behalf of the rival company prompted the IG investigation, says the whole episode is a classic example of how spending runs amok in Washington.
"We, the taxpayers, have been on the hook for millions of dollars for drip pans that are needlessly expensive, all because a congressman wanted a business in his district to be getting this contract," said Melanie Sloan, the group's executive director.
"There was nothing about the Black Hawk that required a particularly different, more expensive drip pan," she said.
Sloan's group has advocated on behalf of the Bob Skillen, who's company VX Aerospace has long produced similar drip pans for Marine Corps helicopters. Skillen, who was unable to obtain specifications for the pan from the government, says he finally got his hands on a sample over the summer. He concluded from his examination that the drip pans should be costing around $3,000.
"It’s a nice piece of work, don’t get me wrong," said. "It’s a good looking part, it’s just not worth 16, 17 grand."
Phoenix Products CEO Peggy Wilson and her husband Thomas have been supporters of Rogers, donating $17,000 to Rogers and his Political Action Committee, "Help America's Leaders," since 2000.
Skillen said he has come forward because he doesn't think taxpayers are getting their money's worth. "A kitty litter box could serve as a drip pan," he said. "When you spend somebody else's money on somebody else, it doesn't matter the price or the cost," he added.
The Pentagon has long faced scrutiny for the prices it has paid for what it claims were speciality items. Two of the most famous examples -- a $435 hammer and a $600 toilet seat -- have become symbols of a what critics say is a broken procurement system. The Golden Hammer award, in fact, is named after the infamous Pentagon hammer contract.
Sloan said that in the current fiscal cliff negotiations, the normally sacred cow of the Pentagon's budget needs to be re-examined. Her group repeatedly has targeted Rogers for criticism for earmarks, excessive spending and helping donors.
"There should be a crackdown on defense spending because we the taxpayers are paying for drip pans that cost $14,000 more than necessary because some member of Congress is protecting it," she said.