The mood was tense outside Heather Wilson’s office Monday afternoon as the results of her confirmation hearing trickled in.
Aides paced back and forth in the reception area of her office in the O’Harra building on the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology campus, speaking to each other in muted tones beneath the televised sound of votes being counted live in the U.S. Senate in Washington.
When the final word came through around 4 p.m. that she would indeed serve as the next secretary of the Air Force, Wilson emerged and announced that her resignation as president of Mines would take effect Wednesday.
Her plan, she said, is to begin the long drive to her new office on the East Coast almost immediately, either Monday night or early Tuesday morning.
Senators voted 76-22 to approve Wilson. Speaking to reporters moments after she learned of her confirmation, she described the news as “bittersweet.”
“I really love the School of Mines,” she said. “It’s a wonderful university. It’s a beautiful part of the world. Big cities on the East Coast aren’t really my thing, so it will be a bit of an adjustment, and I really will miss the students, faculty and staff.”
Wilson said that her top priority in her new role is to restore “readiness of the force.”
“About 50 percent of Air Force aircraft are not ready to perform air missions,” she said. “We’re short on pilots, equipment’s aging. The Air Force is the oldest and the least ready in its history.”
Remedying this, Wilson said, will require a modernization of the Air Force’s equipment, from its fighter jets to its nuclear arsenal.
Strengthening the school’s finances, enrollment and community outreach efforts were among the list of achievements that Wilson reflected on from her four years at the School of Mines. Increasing learning space and the need for refurbished facilities remain on the horizon, she said, for whoever replaces her.
“It’s been a tremendous feeling to be welcomed here even though I wasn’t from South Dakota,” Wilson said. “The community embraced me and my family, and I’ll leave a big part of my heart here in the Black Hills.”
Wilson is President Donald Trump's first service secretary nominee to be approved by the GOP-led chamber.
She represented New Mexico in the House from 1998 to 2009 before becoming a defense industry consultant. Her post-congressional work drew scrutiny from several Democrats, who had questioned an arrangement with government laboratories that paid her $20,000 a month. Wilson denied any impropriety.
Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said he voted against Wilson's nomination because of his lingering concerns with the payments. Reed also cited as troubling a call Wilson made a decade ago while still a member of Congress to a federal prosecutor handling a politically charged corruption probe.
Trump's attempts to fill the other two service secretary jobs have failed so far. His picks for secretaries of the Army and Navy were forced to withdraw from consideration.
After serving five terms in Congress from New Mexico, Wilson collected nearly half a million dollars in questionable payments from federally funded nuclear labs, the Energy Department's inspector general said in a 2013 report. Wilson failed to provide documentation for the consulting work she did to earn $20,000 a month from the Los Alamos and Sandia national labs in New Mexico from January 2009 to March 2011, the report said.
Wilson deflected questions about the payments, saying during her Senate confirmation hearing that she'd performed the work and that the inspector general had found no fault with her.
The telephone call referenced by Reed, the senator from Rhode Island, was made by Wilson in October 2006 to David Iglesias, a U.S. attorney in New Mexico. Iglesias was one of seven federal prosecutors fired a few months later by the Bush administration. At the time, Iglesias was handling a number of public corruption cases. Reed said the call raised the possibility Iglesias may have felt pressured by Congress in an ongoing investigation. Wilson said she did nothing improper.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called Wilson a "proven leader" and said she would lead the service to a stronger future.