An employee for the Army Research Laboratory holds a microelectronic chip. (Army Research Laboratory)
The head of the military's research arm is under scrutiny after a company she founded received a $400,000 contract from the agency last year.
Regina Dugan, director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) since July 2009, founded RedXDefense in 2005 with her father. The Maryland-based company works on security-related products, with a focus on explosives detection. Dugan's father, Vince Dugan, is listed as the company's CEO.
In January 2010, RedXDefense was among 14 award recipients under a general solicitation for research proposals on a range of topics, from "quantum science" to "power and energy" to "operational neuroscience."
RedXDefense was contracted to develop technologies that detect chemical improvised explosive devices, DARPA spokesman Eric Mazzacone said in an e-mail Monday.
The news was first reported Wednesday by AllGov.com and was later picked up by Wired's Danger Room.
DARPA's solicitation notice says that the agency looks for potential conflicts of interest among the employees who are making the contract award decisions. Mazzacone said Dugan does not make source selection or funding decisions.
And in accordance with Obama administration ethics regulations banning agency heads from being involved in decisions that benefit their former employers, Dugan agreed to disqualify herself from matters relating to RedXDefense upon her appointment to DARPA.
"These policies and practices are in place so that qualified people can come to government service and to ensure that all organizations have access to fair and open competition, neither favored nor disfavored," Mazzacone said.
He added that DARPA's general counsel reviewed the situation and found no wrongdoing.
But AllGov writer David Wallechinsky questioned the idea that conflict of interest exists only when there is direct participation in contract decision-making.
"Even if Dugan did not participate in the dealings between the agency she leads and the company run by her father, it surely must have come as a pleasant surprise to learn that DARPA's contract management office had chosen the company she founded to do work for DARPA," Wallechinsky wrote.
"It is also worth considering whether President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates acted wisely when they chose the CEO of a defense contractor to lead an agency that does business with that company."
Project on Government Oversight spokesman Joe Newman said in an e-mail that the situation shows glaring loopholes in the Obama administration's ethics rules.
"No matter if Ms. Dugan followed all the rules, what the public sees and cares about is that DARPA gave a lucrative government deal to the company that she founded, and which is still run by her father," he said. "The DARPA contracting staff were really put in an unenviable position in having to either choose or reject their boss' father."
The Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group, follows issues concerning the "revolving door" between government officials and corporate interests.
Newman said there are unanswered questions about if Dugan still has a financial stake in RedXDefense. Calls to RedXDefense were not immediately returned Monday.