By Chris Butler | Tennessee Watchdog
CHATTANOOGA — Does Sgt. Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes fame have any relatives who are currently serving in the U.S. Air Force?
Given the military branch’s silence on an incident in Tennessee last summer involving President Obama, one might wonder.
“I hear nothing. I see nothing. I know nothing,” Schultz often said.
Taxpayers might never know why people working under Obama decided last July to bypass a privately owned fuel provider for Air Force One at the Chattanooga Airport, even though it had the military contract.
Instead, as Tennessee Watchdog has previously reported, Air Force One went against the contract with that company, TAC Air, and instead refueled with the taxpayer-subsidized Wilson Air, which charged higher prices.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request that Tennessee Watchdog sent in September, Air Force spokeswoman Denise Rodgers said her colleagues in Washington, D.C., are unable to find any records explaining this decision.
“A search was conducted by the Presidential Airlift Group, Andrews AFB; however, no records were located,” Rodgers said in a written response last week.
Rodgers elaborated on the phone Monday by saying that Air Force officials were unlikely to have this information.
“I was told that this was mostly done at the Tennessee airport, and the airport would have the information, not the Air Force,” Rodgers said.
Documents that Tennessee Watchdog obtained in September from Chattanooga Airport also don’t reveal why TAC Air was bypassed. Those documents, mostly e-mails, only reveal that Wilson Air gave special treatment to Air Force One by agreeing to lower its fuel prices for that one plane, undercutting TAC Air in the process.
Tennessee Watchdog broke this story July 31 of last year.
On Aug. 1, airport officials exchanged e-mails discussing how to respond to the story — even though they later refused to discuss the matter with Tennessee Watchdog.
In one exchange between airport spokeswoman Nathalie Strickland and fellow spokesman Albert Waterhouse, Waterhouse said airport officials were not consulted about the military’s decision to bypass TAC Air.
At the time, TAC Air, which has since left Chattanooga, was located on one end of the airport, while Wilson Air is located on the opposite end.
“We were informed by the Air Force that they planned to use Wilson Air Center as the arrival and departure location. We were told the ability to limit access to the west side of the air field was attractive to the operational and security teams, and was among their reasons for choosing that location,” Strickland wrote.
In another e-mail, written the same day, Wilson Air Chattanooga President Dave Ivey explained to Waterhouse and Chattanooga Airport Authority President Terry Hart that his company had to match TAC Air’s price, per a mandate from Air Force officials.
“Through public information, we know somewhat what the price was. We offered a price (15-cents) lower than what we estimated TAC was charging for the fuel. As such, we actually saved the taxpayers money on Air Force One.”
Wilson’s estimate though, is nothing but a guess, based on information that is privileged between TAC Air and the military, according to former TAC Air General Manager Pam McAllister, at the time.
“They can know ‘somewhat,’ but they don’t know what the pricing is because that’s confidential information between us and the government,” McAllister said.
“We are a private company. They should not have access to our records because the next time it comes up for bid they would be able to bid against us knowing that information.”
An attempt to get comment from Wilson Air officials at the time was unsuccessful.
Using $4 million of taxpayer money, Chattanooga Airport officials hired Wilson Air in 2011 to compete against TAC Air, a fixed base operator.
Also, as previously reported, TAC Air officials seemingly grew tired of these and other difficulties with the airport authority and left the city altogether last month. The company sold its office and hangar properties to the airport authority at a cost of $12 million to taxpayers.
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