WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Mark Esper has recused himself from a high-profile review of the Pentagon’s controversial JEDI (Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure) cloud computing contract because his son is employed with one of the initial bidders, a Defense Department spokesman said Tuesday.
Moving forward, the review is to be handled by Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist “out of an abundance of caution,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said in statement emailed to reporters.
“Although not legally required to, [Esper] has removed himself from participating in any decision making following the information meetings, due to his adult son’s employment with one of the original contract applicants,” Hoffman wrote.
Amazon and Microsoft are the only two companies eligible to win the massive award, after Oracle and IBM were eliminated from the competition. Amazon is widely seen as a front-runner because of its experience handling classified data for the CIA. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The Defense Department’s statement did not say which company Esper’s son works for, how that information about the contract came to the secretary’s attention or why he did not recuse himself earlier.
An IBM spokeswoman told The Post that Esper’s son, Luke, “has been a digital strategy consultant with IBM Services since February. His role is unrelated to IBM’s pursuit of JEDI.”
According to a LinkedIn profile that appears to belong to Luke Esper, which identifies him as a digital strategy consultant at IBM, the younger Esper started working at the company in February. Mark Esper was confirmed months later, in July.
“This will probably fall on deaf ears, but do not attempt to reach out to me for a request for comment etc. etc. regarding anything having to do with my father,” states a post on the profile late Tuesday. “He has, and always will, have my full support in anything he does. That’s it.”
It is the latest conflict-of-interest issue to present problems for the JEDI contract, which seeks to centralize the military’s computing infrastructure in the hands of a tech company, allowing U.S. military agencies to harness the most advanced innovations Silicon Valley has to offer.
Defense officials had expected to select a winner for the sought-after contract earlier this year but paused the procurement to investigate potential conflicts of interest involving Deap Ubhi, a former defense official who joined Amazon soon after contributing to the procurement as a Defense Department employee. The Pentagon’s investigation determined that Ubhi had misled the Pentagon and Amazon regarding the terms of his departure but also determined that his role did not create an organizational conflict of interest in Amazon’s favor.
Ubhi was one of four individuals who were the subject of a long-running lawsuit brought by Oracle, which has sought to unravel the JEDI procurement.
Then in late September, the White House asked Esper to review the contract after President Donald Trump expressed concerns that the award would go to Amazon. The contact has been held up while Esper has been reviewing the approach.
Trump’s intervention became the subject of an investigation by the Defense Department inspector general after members of Congress expressed concerns.
Dana Deasy, overseeing the procurement as Defense Department chief information officer, has emphasized that Esper’s review of the strategy for JEDI is separate from the source selection process that is evaluating bids from Amazon and Microsoft. He has also said that the award would wait until after completion of Esper’s review, as well as the inspector general’s investigation.
Hoffman emphasized Tuesday that the procurement “will continue to move to selection through the normal acquisition process run by career acquisition professionals.”
Esper, a former Army officer who became a Raytheon lobbyist and then Army secretary, faced tough questions over his own business interests during his confirmation hearing, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said his relationship with Raytheon “smacks of corruption.”
In his answer, Esper pushed back on the idea that those who are hired through revolving-door arrangements are necessarily corrupt.
“I went to war for this country. I served overseas for this country. I stepped down from jobs that paid me well more than I was working anywhere else,” he said. “And each time, it was to serve the public good and the young men and women of our armed forces. So, no. I think for some reason the presumption is that anyone who comes from the business or corporate world is corrupt.”
Soon after the project was publicly announced last year, a group of companies that then included Microsoft, Oracle and IBM launched a highly public lobbying campaign seeking to pressure the Pentagon into breaking JEDI out into more than one contract.
They argued that the Defense Department was following an approach that is out of line with how the most advanced companies handle cloud computing, and said such a strategy risks the cyber security of classified information by placing too much data in the hands of one company.
“Given what DOD is trying to do with this cloud – a single award, and lock-in for 10 years – [picking just one provider] is completely contrary to their objectives,” Sam Gordy, head of IBM’s federal business, said in an interview last year. “This DOD cloud award is completely contrary to what the [Trump] administration has been saying as far as cloud smart.”
IBM brought a bid protest with the Government Accountability Office seeking to block the award. It was later dismissed when Oracle sued in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.
Amazon has been alone among the bidders in favoring the single-award strategy, arguing such an approach will allow the Defense Department to move faster with its limited technology workforce.
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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites and Jay Greene contributed to this report.