The NYT also reports:
“The contractors are making a killing,” Mr. Cantrell recalled thinking at the meeting, in 2000. “The lobbyists are getting their fees, and the contractors and lobbyists are writing out campaign checks to the politicians. Everybody is making money here – except us.”
Within months, Mr. Cantrell began getting personal checks from contractors and later returned to the airport with Mr. Ennis to pick up a briefcase stuffed with $75,000. The two men eventually collected more than $1.6 million in kickbacks, through 2007, prompting them to plead guilty this year to corruption charges.
Mr. Cantrell readily acknowledges concocting the crime. But what has drawn little scrutiny are his activities leading up to it. Thanks to important allies in Congress, he extracted nearly $350 million for projects the Pentagon did not want, wasting taxpayer money on what would become dead-end ventures.
Recent scandals involving former Representative Randy Cunningham, Republican of California, and the lobbyist Jack Abramoff, both now in prison, provided a glimpse into how special interests manipulate the federal government.
Mr. Cantrell’s story, by contrast, pieced together from federal documents and dozens of interviews, is a remarkable account of how a little-known, midlevel Defense Department insider who spent his entire career in Alabama skillfully gamed the system.
Mr. Cantrell worked in a division that was a small part of the national missile defense program. Determined to save his job, he often bypassed his bosses and broke department rules to make his case on Capitol Hill. He enlisted contractors to pitch projects that would keep the dollars flowing and paid lobbyists to ease them through. He cultivated lawmakers, who were eager to send money back home or to favored contractors and did not ask many questions. And when he ran into trouble, he could count on his powerful friends for protection from Pentagon officials who provided little oversight and were afraid of alienating lawmakers.
Senator Ted Stevens, the Alaska Republican, for example, chewed out Pentagon officials who opposed a missile range Mr. Cantrell and his contractor allies were seeking to build in Alaska, prompting them to back off, while a staffer for former Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi, intervened when the Pentagon threatened to discipline Mr. Cantrell for lobbying, a banned activity for civil servants.
“I could go over to the Hill and put pressure on people above me and get something done,” Mr. Cantrell explained about his success in Washington. “With the Army, as long as the senator is not calling over and complaining, everything is O.K. And the senator will not call over and complain unless the contractor you’re working with does not get his money. So you just have to keep the players happy and it works.”
The national missile defense program has cost the United States more than $110 billion since President Ronald Reagan unveiled his Star Wars plan 25 years ago. Today, the missile defense effort is the Pentagon’s single biggest procurement program.
The Army declined to discuss the Cantrell case, other than to say it had taken steps to try to prevent similar crimes from happening again.
But some current and former Defense Department officials say the exploiting of the system that preceded Mr. Cantrell’s kickback scheme has had a damaging impact, slowing progress toward building a viable missile defense system by diverting money to unnecessary or wasteful endeavors. That pattern of larding up the defense budget with pet projects pushed by lawmakers and lobbyists is a familiar one.