Regina Dugan's tenure at the Department of Defense's shadowy research arm is apparently over with news that Dugan is once again headed back to the private sector. Wired's Noah Shachtman reported that Dugan is taking a job with Google.
As Shachtman points out, Dugan's time at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) won her both praise and criticism. The controversy stemmed from her ties to DARPA contractor RedXDefense, the company that she founded after she left her job as a DARPA program manager in 2000. When she passed through the revolving door to rejoin Darpa in 2009, her father succeeded her as CEO of RedXDefense; her uncle is on the board of directors.
After the media reported that RedXDefense had received $1.75 million in contracts after Dugan became DARPA director, that it still owed her $250,000 and that she still had a financial stake in the company, the Project On Government Oversight asked the Pentagon's Inspector General (IG) in May to investigate the potential conflicts of interest, as well as shortcomings in DARPA's ethics policies.
The IG opened an investigation into the matter in August.
While Dugan's decision to bolt for Google may or may not be related to the ongoing investigation, it does raise the question of what effect it will have on the IG investigation. Typically, it's difficult for IGs to continue an investigation once a subject of an investigation leaves federal government employment because IGs don't have testimonial subpoena power. However, unlike other agency IGs, the Pentagon IG has the power to subpoena testimony, which means it could still bring Dugan back to answer questions.
Perhaps the big question is whether there's the political willpower to continue an investigation that began under Pentagon IG Gordon Hedell, who left the agency in December.
President Obama has not nominated a successor to Hedell, and based on vacancies at other Offices of Inspectors General, we may be faced with a leadership vacuum at the Department of Defense IG for a long time.
It would be a poor decision for the IG to drop this case because of Dugan's departure. There's still a need to assess the integrity of DARPA's contracting process and ethics policies.
Because of the nature of DARPA's work, there's a good chance that someone from a private research firm could eventually be named to replace her. Before that happens, DARPA needs to take steps to protect itself from future conflict of interest controversies.
Obviously, first and foremost the Pentagon could simply not hire someone whose company has contracted with DARPA. But at the very least, it needs to consider requiring future directors to divest themselves of any financial interest with DARPA contractors before joining the agency.
Joe Newman is POGO's director of communications.