* Protests handled by GAO lawyers, not union workers
* Pentagon to release final tanker bidding terms soon
WASHINGTON, Nov 12 (Reuters) - The Government Accountability Office, the congressional agency that reviews contract protests, on Thursday denied it would have any conflict of interest if asked to rule again on the Air Force's aerial tanker competition.
Defense analyst Loren Thompson of the Virginia-based Lexington Institute raised the possibility in a recent blog, noting that GAO employees belong to a union that represents 85,000 white collar workers, including some at Boeing Co.
Boeing is competing with Northrop Grumman Corpand Airbus parent EADS to build 179 refueling airplanes for the Air Force in a deal worth up to $35 billion. Northrop and EADS won the contract in February 2008, but the Pentagon canceled it last year after the GAO upheld a Boeing protest.
Analysts and industry officials are closely examining draft terms for the new competition released by the Air Force in September. Final bidding terms are expected to be released soon and the Pentagon aims to award the contract by June.
Many predict the non-partisan GAO may again be asked to weigh in, possibly even before a contract is awarded.
GAO spokesman Chuck Young said the agency would have no potential conflict of interest because all bid protests are handled by GAO lawyers, who are not part of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers union.
"There's no one who is a member of the union who works on our bid protests," Young told Reuters.
"It's completely separate, so there is no conflict of interest," he said. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)
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