President Obama's nominee for U.S. Army general counsel, who pledges to investigate anyone leaking military secrets to the media, will receive at least $1 million in deferred compensation from the New York Times Co. even as he works for the government, records show.
Solomon B. Watson IV, former chief legal officer for the newspaper, is due the money through an executive payout plan that ends in 2015, according to a recent government ethics form.
Mr. Watson's work as chief legal officer for the New York Times emerged as a key issue last week for several Republicans, who questioned his role when the newspaper published two articles based on highly classified military secrets in 2005 and 2006.
"I would take an aggressive action against anyone in the Department of the Army who leaks classified information," Mr. Watson told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
According to a recent government ethics filing, Mr. Watson, who resigned as chief legal officer at the newspaper company in late 2006, expects six more payments from a New York Times Co. executive compensation plan, ending in 2015. His confirmation is pending.
The plan is valued at between $1 million and $5 million, records show.
Scott Amey, general counsel for the nonpartisan Project On Government Oversight, said if Mr. Watson is continuing to receive compensation from the newspaper company, the Army should "create a fire wall between Mr. Watson and the New York Times Co."
The Army declined to comment on Mr. Watson's financial ties to the newspaper company and referred questions to the White House. A phone message left at a New York number listed under Mr. Watson's name was not returned.
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Washington Times in an e-mail Wednesday that Mr. Watson "is recused from matters that have a direct and predictable effect on the financial interests of The New York Times."
Because of his participation in the company's deferred executive compensation and retirement and pension plans, Mr. Watson agreed to be recused unless he gets a written waiver or qualifies for a regulatory exemption, Mr. Vietor said.
"It is our understanding that Mr. Watson will be fully compliant with all ethics laws and able to perform the duties of his position with these recusals in place," Mr. Vietor said.
Diane McNulty, a New York Times spokeswoman, said Mr. Watson's deferred compensation plan was originally approved by the company's board of directors. She said the newspaper does not expect to communicate with Mr. Watson on specific issues pertaining to the newspaper, such as open records requests. Nor does the company make payments to increase the value of the plan after Mr. Watson's retirement, she said.
Under President Obama's ethics rules, political appointees generally are barred from specific matters involving former employers or clients for a period of two years after their employment.
Mr. Watson left the company well over two years ago, but he is continuing to receive substantial income from his former employer.
The deferred compensation deal wasn't Mr. Watson's only source of cash. He also reported receiving $16,861 per month during 2008 and most of 2009 through the newspaper company's supplemental executive retirement plan, and another $6,050 per month through a pension plan, records show.
Mr. Watson is a Vietnam War veteran who earned a Bronze Star and commendation medals. His financial ties to the company did not surface during his Senate confirmation hearing last month, but he was questioned repeatedly about his work for the newspaper.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, said that while Mr. Watson worked as the newspaper company's attorney, "the New York Times published two stories which revealed highly classified information" amid concerns that the disclosures would jeopardize national security.
One of the stories, published in 2005, won a Pulitzer Prize. It reported that President Bush had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to monitor phone calls and e-mail of Americans and others inside the U.S. for evidence of terrorist activity without court-approved warrants.
In a Senate floor statement, Mr. McCain said he wanted to know more about Mr. Watson's role in running the stories. Mr. McCain said the White House had urged the newspaper not to publish the information, and former CIA Director Porter J. Goss later said of the disclosure: "The damage has been very severe to our capabilities to carry out our mission."
Pressed by Mr. McCain, Mr. Watson said the publications of the stories "were consistent with the law at the time they were published." He also said he was not the person responsible for reviewing the stories, which the newspaper has defended.
Ms. McNulty told a New York Times reporter covering Mr. Watson's hearing last month that the stories were "important pieces of journalism, done responsibly and protected by the First Amendment."
Still, Mr. Watson distanced himself from the decision to run the stories, telling Mr. McCain, "Senator, my opinion is that the decision to publish them was justified; were it my decision to make, I would not have made that decision.
"I do not, as a professional, abide people leaking classified information."
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, said he was troubled that Mr. Watson wasn't more involved in the decision on whether to publish the classified military information.
"It bothers me, as the top lawyer in that firm, so to speak, that you weren't engaged and weren't involved in the decision-making process on that and now you're going to be in a position to be the top lawyer at the Army," Mr. Chambliss told Mr. Watson.
Mr. Watson's nomination was announced after the previous nominee, Donald Remy, faced questions from Republicans who were upset that he left off the name of troubled mortgage giant Fannie Mae on a work history statement he had submitted to the Senate.
Mr. Remy, who previously worked as Fannie Mae's chief compliance officer, described his former employer as "a major U.S. company." The name of the company was cited in other paperwork sent to the Senate, but Mr. Remy, who called the omission a mistake, eventually withdrew his nomination last year.