Saturday, September 14, 2013

Pentagon ends sweetheart fuel deal for Google executive aircraft

The Department of Defense (DOD) has ended a sweetheart fuel deal that allowed a company owned by top Google executives to buy discounted jet fuel for a fleet of aircraft based at Moffett Federal Airfield (MFA) in California. The public interest group Consumer Watchdog said Friday the aircraft should be evicted from the facility and an investigation opened to see if laws were broken.

H211, a company owned by Google CEO Larry Page, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin, apparently bought fuel to which it wasn't entitled under the agreement with the Defense Department, Consumer Watchdog said in press statement Friday. “The fuel was purchased below commercial market prices. Consumer Watchdog first raised concerns about the Google executives' sweetheart deal in a 2011 report. New details of about the arrangement emerged in a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report Thursday.

The Google executives' aircraft, a Boeing 767, a Boeing 757 and four Gulfstream V's, were allowed to be based at NASA's Ames Research Center, Moffett Federal Airfield, ostensibly because they were to be used to do research flights for NASA, but the WSJ documented that few of the flights originating from Moffett were NASA related. Some were flights to Tahiti, Hawaii and Croatia.

"What's truly outrageous is their company appears to have bought $6 million worth of fuel subsidized by taxpayers that they weren't entitled to at all,” said John Simpson, Consumer Watchdog's Privacy Project Direct. “Why should they get to fill up their fuel tanks to fly on personal junkets around the world, when we're all struggling to fill our gas tanks?"

H211 was only entitled to buy fuel from the Department of Defense when the planes were used for NASA missions. However, as The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, only 155 scientific missions had been flown for NASA as of last year, while more than 710 flights had departed Moffett since 2007.

The contract between H211 and the Pentagon specifies that the fuel was supposed to be used only "for performance of a U.S. government contract, charter or other approved use."
The Wall Street Journal reported that 2.3 million gallons of fuel were purchased from the DOD since 2009 for the Google jets at an average cost of $3.19, while the average price at commercial airports for the same period was $4.35, a savings totaling $2.67 million.
NASA's relation with the Google executives is under investigation by NASA's Inspector General (IG).

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Idaho) has also raised questions about the arrangement. The sweetheart deal that allowed the fuel purchases was terminated Aug. 31, probably because of the IG's investigation, Consumer Watchdog said. However, the aircraft are still based at Moffett, about three miles away from Google's headquarters.

Up for lease

In May, the General Services Administration (GSA) on behalf of NASA issued a Request for Proposals to solicit lease proposals for the rehabilitation and adaptive reuse of NASA's historic Hangar One located at Moffett.

The proposed long-term lease of Hangar One and MFA offers a unique opportunity for the private sector to collaborate with the government to reposition and manage federally owned property for private and public sector reuse, the GSA said.

"In the face of declining budgets and significant mission changes, NASA has been challenged to repurpose historic Hangar One and manage the airfield to support other non-NASA users,” said GSA Acting Administrator Dan Tangherlini. “This competitive approach is designed to create opportunities for development while eliminating NASA's management costs of the airfield."

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