Saturday, October 27, 2007

Army to review Iraq contracts for fraud

A 105mm M1 Abrams tank, outside the
Tank-Army Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM)
Detroit Arsenal, Warren, MI

On Monday, ten specially trained auditors, criminal investigators and acquisitions experts will descend on the Tank-Army Automotive and Armaments Command (TACOM) north of Detroit to begin an audit of a sampling of approximately 6000 contracts worth $2.8 billion issued by an Army office in Kuwait that has been identified as a hotbed of corruption.

The office in question, located at Camp Arifjan, buys supplies and gear to support American G.I.'s as they rotate in and out of Iraq. Nearly two dozen Army, military and civilian employees have been charged with accepting bribes and kickbacks, and $15 million has changed hands. Depending on what the investigators discover, the number of individuals charged will likely grow. Currently the Army Criminal Investigations Command has 83 ongoing corruption investigations relating to contract fraud.

The highest profile corruption case to be charged so far involves Army Maj. John Cockerham, who stands accused of bribery, conspiracy, money laundering and obstruction. Prosecutors charge that Cockerham, in concert with his wife and sister, took at least $9.6 million in bribes in 2004 and 2005 during the time he was a contract officer in Kuwait.

Some of the red flags that have been raised include contracts awarded to vendors outside the usual competitive bidding process and contracts that went through the motions of the bidding process, then were awarded to the highest rather than the lowest bids. In other instances, what was purchased was not what was delivered.

"Is there anything in there that might indicate to us that there might be some potential fraudulent activity?" Jeffrey Parsons, director of contracting at Army Materiel Command, said in an AP interview. "If there are patterns that we start to identify, then we're going to do further review."

Contracts with significant problems will be forwarded to the Army Audit Agency and the Army Criminal Investigation Command. If there's credible evidence of wrongdoing, the FBI and prosecutors from the U.S. Justice Department are called in.

In Warren, Mich., home to a large Army acquisition center, the contracting review team will examine 314 of the Kuwait contracts, each worth more than $25,000 and issued between 2003 and 2006.

In Kuwait, a separate team of 10 at Camp Arifjan is already going through 339 contracts of lesser value and awarded during the same time period, according to Army Materiel Command at Fort Belvoir, Va.

Both reviews are to be finished before the end of the year.

Preliminary results of an investigation into the contracts coming out of Camp Arifjan in 2007 has wrapped up, and the investigators uncovered numerous problems with the office, including high staff turnover, slip-shod record keeping, inadequate staffing, and lack of oversight. Those personnel problems, coupled with billions of dollars of war funding, create an environment where corruption, malfeasance and misconduct find fertile soil.

The investigative teams in both Michigan and Kuwait will be reviewing paper records, but they will also be using data-mining techniques to search electronically stored data for signs of wrongdoing. "Do we have contractors with different names but the same address?" Parsons said. "That would cause some suspicion." He also indicated that the investigators would be relying on tips provided by individuals familiar with the imperfect process.

If a contractor and an acquisitions officer conspire to break the rules for personal gain, uncovering the corruption can be extremely difficult. "You can have a contract file that is pristine - all the documentation is there," Parsons said. "Just going through the contract files doesn't necessarily give you 100 percent assurance that something else might not have been going on."

Beating the checks and balances in the federal procurement process is a difficult trick to pull off, requiring attention to detail and precise planning. It takes someone schooled in the system to know how to evade it. Unfortunately, the Army had some very smart "bad apples" who knew how to pull it off.

The 6000 contracts that came from the office in Kuwait spawned 18,000 transactions for myriad support items, from laundry and warehouse services to bottled water and food. Every transaction presented an opportunity for fraud to be committed.

In 2005, two Lt. Generals who were top commanders in Iraq, Steven Whitcomb and John Vines, became so concerned about allegations of corruption that they pushed for the Criminal Investigation Command to establish field offices in Iraq and Kuwait.

The Army investigating the allegations of fraud, abuse, bribery, corruption and kickbacks is a good start, but it is time to take a page from history. It is time for a reprise of the Truman Committee.

In 1940, as World War II gripped the globe and United States involvement in the conflict became more and more likely, the United States appropriated $10 Billion in defense contracts in preparation for that eventuality.

Early in 1941, reports of malfeasance and abuses by the contractors reached Missouri Senator Harry S Truman, and the news did not sit well with WW I Infantry Captain “Give ‘em Hell Harry.” In typical Truman fashion, he set out to seek the truth, not by summoning “experts” but by embarking on a 10,000 mile tour of military installations. On this fact-finding tour, he discovered that the companies that received the contracts were clustered in the east, with a mere handful divvying up most of the largesse. He also discovered that they were receiving a fixed-profit, regardless of performance.

He returned to the Senate convinced that the defense efforts of the United States were being undermined by waste and corruption, and he proposed the notion of a special Senate committee that would investigate the National Defense Program.

President Roosevelt was convinced to let Truman head up the committee, being sympathetic to the President and his administration. The President was assured that the committee would not be too much trouble, as it would only be allotted $15,000 to investigate billions in defense contracts.

The Truman Committee was created by unanimous Senate decree on 01 March 1941. Over the next three years, with Senator Truman at the helm, the committee held hundreds of hearings, traveled thousands of miles to conduct field inspections, and saved millions of dollars in cost over-runs. Senator Truman was not shy about threatening executives with prison time as he whacked greedy corporate snouts out of the public trough.

Before Claire McCaskill announced her Senate bid, I was encouraging her to run for the Class I seat that Truman once held, and touting her background as our state auditor and as a tough prosecutor as reasons she should run and reasons we should vote for her, because the Iraq fiasco needed a good auditing, in the spirit of Harry Truman.

During her campaign, she seized on my the idea of a modern day Truman Committee to investigate waste, fraud and corruption in the reconstruction of Iraq. During a speech in Harry S Truman’s hometown of Independence last year, she spoke admiringly of the former President and his diligence in reining in war profiteers. "He was fearless. He uncovered enormous undeserved profits. I believe we need a new Truman Committee. I will fight for such a committee.”

Less than a year after she was elected, and a mere nine months after taking her seat, she is very close to bringing the notion to fruition. The Senate recently agreed to a plan from Senators McCaskill and Webb to get a handle on the Pentagon’s scattershot method of awarding private contracts for work in Iraq. It was added to the Defense Authorization Bill for 2008.

The audits that get underway on Monday certainly underscore the need for the oversight body that would be created from the legislation offered by Webb and McCaskill. In fact, they demand it.