In the papers at SDSU, I found a 1990 Congressional Quarterly profile of Bates that characterized him, in part, as having soured on the military after the Vietnam War. Bates seems to dismiss the idea but then goes on to say that "we spend way too much money on the military. I know that's [controversial here], because San Diego is a military town. But see, in America, image is more important than substance. So you put a lot of money in the defense budget and you think you're defending the country, you're stronger. But you've got to be smarter. It's like going into Iraq. We created more terrorism, not less, by doing that. I think the whole Iraq War was another attempt to build up the defense budget, because after the Cold War, the budget started going down, down, down.
"I was attacked by the media relentlessly most of my career. Is that article you refer to," he asks me, "the one where they said I wasn't living up to my potential and was hard on staff?"
"Yes," I say, "but I read the article's main complaint to be that you were erratic and unpredictable."
"I'm a maverick, an independent," Bates replies. "I don't really go for the party stuff. You have these backbenchers, members that have been there for a long time, and you're not playing ball with them, so it's the same old story: kill the messenger if you don't like the message."
I ask Bates if he thinks the Congressional Quarterly reporter was writing from a particular bias.
"No, the writer talked to somebody like Vic Fazio," he says, "or one of the other old Democrats who couldn't get me to go along. See, the reporters don't know anything. They go to one of the older members and say, 'What do you think of Jim Bates?' 'Oh, he's unpredictable.' Because that's their experience. I was unpredictable in that I wouldn't go along with the party line. They couldn't count on me to go along, in lockstep, with what I thought were abuses of power. That's because they were wrong," says Bates, laughing. "I think I was ahead of my time. And I was glad the Democrats lost in '94."
I am anxious to hear Bates's current thoughts about the 1985 military procurement scandal he was instrumental in exposing. The SDSU collection of his papers shows that, following whistleblower reports, he sent dozens of letters seeking a full-scale investigation to high-level Pentagon officials, including then secretary of the Navy John Lehman and secretary of defense Caspar Weinberger. To Jack Brooks, chairman of the House Committee on Government Operations, Bates wrote on June 18, 1985, about "procurement problems originating from Naval Air Station Miramar." In the letter, he mentioned ashtray overpricing and other problems involving the Navy's purchase of trash cans and decorative trees. He attached a three-page typed statement written by whistleblower Verna Millard.
"In the late 1970s," wrote a retiring Millard, who says she began working at Miramar in 1972, "I noticed items furnished by the Grumman [Aerospace Corporation] began to escalate at a rapid rate. Items such as gaskets, connectors, small metal fasteners...were being purchased at prices far above their obvious value. When I saw the ashtrays at $659 each, I questioned the price as far as I was allowed to go through the civilian chain of command. I did this same thing with the socket wrenches and many, many other items. Apparently nothing was done. After you continually bring these matters to the attention of your supervisors, and nothing is done, you eventually cease to come forward."
Among the Bates papers, a folder labeled "Verna Millard" contains nothing but requisition forms itemizing various purchases. One form shows a purchase of two socket wrenches for $404.23 each. Two other forms show different ashtray prices, one for $659 and another for $900.
Either his memory is inaccurate or there was a third ashtray price, for Bates tells me he remembers "that $800 ashtray. But it was everything, really. Let's say the G6-32 washer. Oh, my gosh, what is that? Well, it's a little washer that goes on the G36 bolt, and they were getting $50 for one that you could get at the hardware store for ten cents. And there was a coffeemaker that was, like, $12,000. And the reason was that it was specially designed.
"Part of the problem was the specs. See, everybody's feeding off the [whole process]. The specs, they'd be written by someone [who would] make it a unique bolt. Instead of making it the standard size, they'd add one-nineteenth of an inch. So it had no appreciable [variation], but it was a little different. Because it was a little different, they had to do just a little different die and cast. They couldn't run it in with the billions they were doing for the dime stores. That kind of thing. But that was all by design.
"So once we got into it, it was never-ending. It was like quicksand. You'd say, 'Well, these bolts, what about the springs?' And what they were paying was 600 percent increases, in some instances. I said, 'Why?' And they wouldn't answer. So I'd go public with it.
"Machiavelli said when you're ahead, contain. When you're behind, which I was, expand. You have to expand the arena. Expand the balance of power by bringing in new participants, the public. And the media, they liked it, because it was something to write about.
"And you know why I got into the spare parts and the little stuff? I couldn't understand the big contracts. They were too big for me -- multimillion-dollar contracts -- so I just had a hunch, or a whistleblower would bring me something. And once I got started, I was relentless. I just kept going, and everybody else was saying, 'Hey, you're committing suicide. This is a military town.' But it was wrong. What they were paying for things like plastic plants was absurd. Something you could get at a dime store for five bucks.