Senate GOP questions Harding's entanglements

Senate Republicans on Tuesday questioned whether retired Maj. Gen. Robert Harding would face ethics problems because of his past business entanglements with the Pentagon if he is confirmed to head the Transportation Security Administration.

Questions have swirled around Harding Security Associates — the company Harding founded in 2001 and sold in 2009 — and contracts the company and its affiliates have with the TSA.

While Harding told lawmakers he would abide by strict White House ethics guidelines, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said she would insist he answer more questions in writing before the committee votes on his nomination.

Harding’s old company has ties to firms with major contracts with the TSA, including one to provide full-body scanners. According to the White House, Harding will recuse himself from dealing with contracts involving his former company until July, a year after he sold it.

But the abbreviated Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing, which lasted just over an hour so members could go to the White House to watch President Barack Obama sign the health care bill, was smooth sailing compared with the tougher grilling Harding is expected to face when he goes before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

Congressional aides said senators were likely to press Harding on a more than $7 million contract his firm had to provide civilian interrogators for prisons in Iraq in 2004. The contract was subject to a Defense Department audit, and the company eventually had to return $2 million to the government, an aide said.

Harding is also likely to face more questions about whether he would push to unionize the TSA — an issue that dogged Obama’s first choice to head the agency, Erroll Southers, the head of the Los Angeles airport’s security force who withdrew amid intense Republican opposition.

“We would never bargain away security,” Harding said Tuesday in response to questions from Hutchison, the committee’s top Republican.

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