A former high-ranking Department of Homeland Security official turned senior counsel for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has entered into a settlement agreement over what the Justice Department alleged was a conflict of interest regarding the award of a no-bid contract worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The Justice Department has not yet publicly disclosed the existence of the settlement, a copy of which The Intercept obtained.
The official, Michelle Benecke, served as executive director of the DHS Office of Management Integration. In March 2018, she joined the Senate Homeland Security Committee as an adviser and then senior counsel. The settlement agreement was signed on October 31, 2022, and requires Benecke to pay a $50,000 fine to the U.S. government for her alleged conduct in relation to the awarding of a no-bid contract worth $320,997 — later modified to include an additional $116,897 — to Intelligent Fiscal Optimal Solutions, Inc. in 2016.
The document notes that the settlement was undertaken to avoid the expense of protracted litigation and “is neither an admission of liability by Benecke nor a concession by the United States that its claims are not well founded” and that “Benecke denies the allegations.”
Federal conflict of interest law prohibits DHS executives from communications with intent to influence any DHS employees for a period of one year after leaving DHS. By December 18, 2015, the Justice Department says in the settlement, Kenneth J. Buck, then-executive director of DHS Office of Management Integration — the job Benecke, then the deputy director, would soon inherit — had informed Benecke that he would be leaving DHS to join iFOS, a business management consultancy. On December 22, Benecke told DHS contracting personnel that she was ready to award iFOS a sole source contract. After Buck left, during the one-year “cool off” period, Benecke communicated extensively with Buck about DHS operations, the DOJ alleges in the settlement: they spoke via cellphone for 36 combined hours and exchanged 650 text messages concerning DHS operations.
Benecke did not inform other DHS officials about her contacts with Buck, the DOJ contends, and “took affirmative steps to conceal Buck’s direct contacts with Benecke, as well as his work on the contract, from others at DHS,” including by using nongovernment email accounts and personal cellphones and by removing Buck’s name from documents that he sent to her personal accounts.
While DHS was considering the iFOS contract, Benecke tasked Buck to edit and review work materials for her, the DOJ alleges. The contract was ultimately awarded, totaling over $400,000 in taxpayer money.
Benecke, Buck, and spokespeople for the Senate Homeland Security Committee and committee Chair Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., did not respond to requests for comment.
Although the Justice Department typically discloses such settlement agreements, it has not done so in this case. The Justice Department issued press releases announcing a smaller settlement involving a $10,000 fine reached with Buck in April and announced a lawsuit against the contractor, iFOS, in May. Buck did not respond to requests for comment.
Asked why the Justice Department did not disclose the settlement, Alicia Bentley, the trial attorney handling the case, referred The Intercept to the department’s Office of Public Affairs, which did not respond to a request for comment.