Port Commission candidate Gael Tarleton now works in the University of Washington's office of Global Affairs as a special assistant. But she once worked for one of the heavyweights in port security technology—a company that's had more than $7 million in contracts at the Seattle port in the past and may vie for more in the future. And her campaign has been generously supported by some of her former colleagues at the company.
In her bid to unseat commissioner Bob Edwards, Tarleton has raised more than $78,000 to date (compared to just $32,000 for Edwards). About $12,000 of her total has come from current and retired executives at Science Applications International Corporation (commonly known as SAIC). That includes $2,800—the limit for an individual—from the company's founder and former CEO, Robert Beyster.
Asked if she actively solicited her SAIC connections, Tarleton says, "Absolutely. I worked at that place for 12 years. They were on my 'friends and family' list from day one."
SAIC is a research and engineering firm that provides information technology and security products and services for government customers. According to Fedspending.org, SAIC had more than $24 billion in federal contracts in fiscal 2005, the last complete year for which numbers are available. The company's top customers include the Defense, Homeland Security, and Energy departments.
In the port security realm, SAIC is best known for its Vehicle and Cargo Inspection System, a machine that uses gamma rays instead of the traditional X-rays to scan the insides of cargo containers through their metal walls.
According to a list obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and provided to Seattle Weekly, the Port of Seattle had 11 contracts with SAIC between 2002 and 2004, totaling more than $7 million. Details on the contracts are sparse, but all appear to be security and "safe commerce" related. A 2002 Seattle P-I article said the Port obtained one of the $1.2 million vehicle and cargo inspection machines in 2002 and intended to purchase another.
Spokesman David Schaefer says the Port of Seattle has no current contracts with SAIC, and he declined to say whether the Port is currently considering future contracts with the company. SAIC also declined to comment about current or future business at the Port of Seattle.
Edwards, first elected to the post in 1999, says "I've tried not to pay too much attention to what [my opponents] are saying and doing. I'm sticking to the record of what I've done as Port commissioner," when asked about Tarleton's ties to SAIC.
The commission only holds sway over contracts that total $200,000 or more, says Edwards. But he notes that when it comes to federal money coming into the Port, the commission has no say over who gets what, but acts in more of an administrative role. (According to commission minutes, SAIC led a $2.7 million demonstration project funded by the Transportation Security Administration in 2003, though no details were available about what the project entailed.)
"We are going through our ethics policies right now to make sure there isn't any way that commissioners can personally profit by knowledge that they have or by direct award of contracts or business," Edwards says.
But Jack Block Jr., another challenger for Edwards' post, says he's alarmed at Tarleton's backing by SAIC employees. He quotes a March 2007 Vanity Fair article about the company that says: "No Washington contractor pursues government money with more ingenuity and perseverance than SAIC. No contractor seems to exploit conflicts of interest in Washington with more zeal."
"With all the problems we're having with accountability and transparency at the Port, it scares the hell out of me that SAIC has taken an interest in this race," Block says. "Obviously SAIC is moving into the port security business. With their emphasis on security and sensors this is a big market for them."
Tarleton says she'll recuse herself from any future Port Commission decisions that have to do with her former employer, "and I will do it in the open."
"I think first of all our ports are a target, we all know that, for potential terrorists," says Diane Archer, a former SAIC contracts manager from Great Falls, Va., who gave Tarleton's campaign $200 earlier this month. "The Port of Seattle is as vulnerable as any other. I've worked with Gael in the past and she's a very dynamic individual. Her knowledge in security would serve the Port very well."
Tarleton worked as a vice president and director at SAIC from 1990 to 2002, and was responsible for building the company's business with Russia, she says. "I managed 60 employees in Russia and 20 [in the United States]. The business was science and technology for environmental cleanup, environmental monitoring, nuclear reactor safety and earthquake detection systems."
Her financial affairs statement with the state's Public Disclosure Commission lists an SAIC retirement account worth $75,000 or more—the highest category. Tarleton says she doesn't know how much SAIC stock is in the account, "but it's less than 1 percent of my retirement profile."
When SAIC went public in 2006, former employees were restricted from selling off their shares until January 2008, she says. "I will make a decision about what I'm going to do with the stock then."