The Air Force has been quietly investigating potential procurement fraud for nearly two years, service officials revealed Friday.
The Office of Special Investigations opened its probe in January 2021, spokesperson Linda Card told Air Force Times. She declined to provide details on the scope of the case or whether fraudulent products were used in military aircraft.
“This investigation is still open and ongoing,” Card said. “Complex fraud investigations like this one generally take a very long time to conclude.”
The news comes on the heels of a federal civil lawsuit in South Carolina District Court that argues defense companies Lockheed Martin, Collins Aerospace and Teledyne Technologies may have installed counterfeit electronic components on an ejection seat that malfunctioned during a fatal fighter jet crash in 2020.
First Lt. David Schmitz, an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina, was killed during a botched nighttime landing in June 2020 when his ejection seat failed to deploy a parachute. He successfully ejected from the cockpit but died on impact with the ground.
Air Force spokesperson Rose Riley said the fraud investigation is separate from the lawsuit brought by Schmitz’s widow, Valerie.
It’s unclear whether the OSI inquiry prompted the Air Force to deny a recent Freedom of Information Act request from Valerie Schmitz’s legal team. Information they sought on the suspected fake ejection seat parts was “expected to interfere with enforcement proceedings,” the Air Force said in June.
“Any responsive documents to your request are not releasable to you at this time. … Your request has been closed,” wrote Roxanne Jensen, head of OSI’s FOIA branch.
Defense contracting fraud comes in many forms, from overbilling the Pentagon to providing counterfeit components to falsifying military housing paperwork. The Justice Department was publicly handling nearly 80 major defense fraud and bribery cases as of April, five of which involve the Air Force.
The Pentagon and Justice Department can collaborate on crackdowns of counterfeit aircraft parts. Defense contracting officers can address the issue by telling a company to provide legitimate products and then ending the contract, while DOJ can pursue fines and possible imprisonment.
From 2013 to 2017, the federal government recovered more than $6.6 billion from defense contracting fraud cases, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Last year, a GAO report on shortcomings in the Pentagon’s efforts to combat fraud noted that the Air Force did not adequately track procurement fraud as required in periodic risk assessments. More than two dozen military organizations, including the Air Force, had not chosen representatives to sit on a newly created fraud-reduction task force, the report added.
“In September 2020, the Air Force’s policy and contracting-oversight officials told us they were aware of the task force and were looking into how they can contribute,” the federal watchdog said. “However, in October 2020, these officials told us they were unaware of an Air Force official designated to serve as task force representative.”
Military Times editorial fellow Zamone Perez contributed research to this story.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.