Once a key link between the White House and America’s secret nuclear strike force, a Navy captain now faces court-martial for allegedly steering defense contracts to a company she founded.
Military authorities accuse Capt. Heather E. Cole of failing to disclose her active duty military status while negotiating nearly $635,000 worth of contracts for her Oklahoma-based manufacturing firm, Worksaver Material Handling Equipment Company, Inc., between 2002 and 2015, according to charge sheets released to Navy Times.
She was ordered to a general court-martial on June 26.
Cole, 53, of Shawnee, Oklahoma, has pleaded not guilty.
Her criminal conspiracy charges are tied to five Marine Corps contracts, two Defense Logistics Agency deals and one Air Force order given to Worksaver between 2002 and 2013.
Prosecutors also contend that Cole lied in 2012 to a Navy legal officer by claiming she was a non-participating partner in Worksaver, that her firm received a waiver to do business with the federal government and also never did business with the Navy, according to the legal filings.
Other charges allege that she misused both "U.S. Government aircraft without proper authorization” in 2014 and 2015 and her military communication system and equipment in 2013.
A Navy Times analysis of all federal transactions with Worksaver found 237 purchase orders, definitive contracts and modifications worth more than $6.2 million for equipment bought by the Navy, Army, Air Force, Defense Logistics Agency and the Defense Contract Management Agency between April 12, 2000 and June 11, 2018.
But Cole’s charging documents reveal that Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigators focused largely on Worksaver orders negotiated while Cole served in a string of Navy units linked to U.S. Strategic Command at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma, a 40-minute drive from Worksaver’s headquarters in Shawnee.
She was fired as commander of the Navy’s Strategic Communications Wing 1 at Tinker in 2015 after an investigation “determined that Cole had not performed up to the high standards demanded of an officer in command.”
Cole’s termination fueled conspiracy theories suggesting that she refused to transmit nuclear launch codes after the Pentagon supposedly ordered a sneak attack against Russia.
Strategic Communications Wing 1 is responsible for keeping a secure link between the nation’s leaders and the the Navy’s fleet of ballistic missile submarines.
As commander, Cole was stationed at Tinker but reported to Naval Air Forces headquarters on Naval Air Station North Island near San Diego.
She oversaw fleet reconnaissance squadrons and their detachments at Tinker, Travis Air Force Base in California, Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska and Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, according to the military.
Navy spokesman Brian O’Rourke said Cole’s 2015 removal at Tinker “had nothing to do” with her current criminal charges.
“The charging and the firing were two completely different things,” he said.
Citing the ongoing investigation, O’Rourke declined further comment.
Cole’s charge sheets allege that she was aided by two civilian co-conspirators but their names are redacted in the paperwork provided to Navy Times and military officials declined to say whether anyone else is being investigated in connection with her case.
Cole’s private criminal defense attorney — Jocelyn Stewart — said the probe has gone on for three years.
Stewart declined to make Cole available for an interview but said her client “has strongly denied any wrongdoing from the start of the Navy’s investigation into the allegations against her."
“Captain Cole is being railroaded by the Navy whether because of political priorities, resentment toward what she has achieved or fear of the truths she has told and is continuing to tell,” Stewart said in an email to Navy Times. “Despite all the challenges Captain Cole has faced in this misguided prosecution, we look forward to having our day in court to tell the real story and clear her good name.”
The attorney also slammed how military investigators handled Cole’s case, saying her client “has been subjected to the Navy’s spurious charges, procedural roadblocks and a process more interested in demeaning her character and service to our country than in fairness, fact-finding, and following the legal process.”
Stewart lauded Cole for “an exemplary career spanning nearly 29 years of dedicated and distinguished service" and noted the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Oklahoma "declined to prosecute her for any offense” stemming from the Navy probe.
Stewart said that she sought a copy of the formal memo relinquishing jurisdiction by federal prosecutors but her request was denied as “irrelevant” by the Navy’s lead prosecutor, Cmdr. Christopher Czaplak.
Justice Department officials declined to comment on Cole’s case but said no civilians have been charged in connection with it.
Worksaver’s website promotes the company as specialists in machine design, fabrication, steels sales and metal servicing.
Navy Times found that one 2005 construction equipment order for $3,850 involved “nuclear bombs,” according to a summary of the Defense Logistics Agency contract.
In the latest deal inked on June 11, the Defense Logistics Agency ordered $33,845 worth of prefabricated metal building and component manufacturing products.
The order was filed 15 days before military charges were referred against Cole in San Diego.
A Navy Times analysis of Worksaver’s federal contracts and marketing materials showed that Cole’s firm has long sold itself as a veteran- and woman-owned business.
Cole’s name is the only corporate officer listed for the company, according to Paula Walker, an official with the Oklahoma Tax Commission.
Although 2003 Oklahoma records indicate that Cole was Worksaver’s lone incorporator , Navy officials allege that she also has listed a man as the firm’s owner.
His name was redacted by military officials in the legal documents provided to Navy Times.
Navy officials did not respond to questions regarding the case’s status, which they say will be tried in a courtroom at Naval Base San Diego. Cole’s defense attorney Stewart said the trial is slated to begin in December.
A naval flight officer, Cole received her commission in 1990 and pinned on her captain’s rank in 2011, according to military records.
She’s been stationed at Tinker for large stretches of time since 2002 and remains attached to the base’s Strategic Communications Wing 1 despite her 2015 firing, according to her records.
Command officials did not return requests for comment.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.