Director: Agency to get aggressive with fraud, waste in Afghanistan
KABUL - By most measures, the government agency charged with watching over the enormous flow of cash to U.S. reconstruction efforts here stumbled out of the gate after its creation in 2008.
Not only did many critics consider the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction late to the game - opening its office seven years into the war - but already in its short life its first chief has resigned, the man who replaced him also quit, and Congress has blasted the agency for not living up to its mission.
But in an interview at the U.S. Embassy here, Steven J. Trent, the new acting inspector general, said he believed that with new offices opening in Afghanistan, the largest ever number of agents in-country, and several cases coming near to prosecution, the agency has finally achieved what he called "investigative momentum."
It can now more aggressively monitor the millions of dollars spent each day on humanitarian and development projects in Afghanistan - and it can track down those who steal, bribe, and defraud the government, Trent said.
"There's a great sense in the States that money's being wasted over here," said Trent, who was appointed to his post in September by President Barack Obama. "And we're going to focus on what the big issues are."
That focus will be important as Trent and his agents try to steer past earlier criticism from several members of Congress, including Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.; Susan Collins, R-Maine and Tom Coburn, R-Okla. The group repeatedly called for the dismissal of former inspector general Arnold Fields, with McCaskill saying during one hearing that he was "not the right person for the job."
Earlier this year, their censure finally helped push Fields, a retired Marine major general, to resign.
"As a former auditor, I know how crucial this position is, especially when you look at the amount of contracting we're doing in Afghanistan," McCaskill said last year in a video posted on her Facebook page. "Tens upon billions of dollars are being spent on contracting in Afghanistan, and this person has to be the eyes and ears, not only to protect our soldiers … but to protect taxpayer dollars."
It is now up to Trent to be the eyes and ears at a time of intense political and financial scrutiny.
In October the agency opened three more field offices in Afghanistan, at Forward Operating Base Salerno in Khost province, Camp Stone in Herat Province, and Camp Leatherneck in Helmand province, bringing the total to six. By the end of 2011, Trent said he planned to have 22 agents and two Afghan investigators working in the country, up from a total of about four investigators in 2009.
"We're really getting to be effective," Trent said. "We've got people all over the country. We've got plenty of work, and we're dying for more."
The Inspector General's office was created by Congress to monitor the roughly $70 billion the U.S. has dedicated to development and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan since 2002. That money is disbursed through various arms of the government, including the Department of Defense and the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Trent's office is similar to its predecessor in America's other war - the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, for which Trent has also worked. But while that office faced its own challenges, including a Republican-led effort to shut it down in 2006, the agency eventually came into its own and has been widely praised by lawmakers.
According to its own figures, the Iraq office has returned more than $154 million to taxpayers from seizures and other actions over the last seven years, and its investigations have lead to 57 convictions, many of them of military personnel, on charges including bribery, fraud, and money laundering.
The Inspector General for Afghanistan has returned $50 million in the last 18 months, according to agency officials, and it has identified nearly $70 million that "should be returned to the U.S. government." Its work to date has resulted in seven criminal convictions.
In some ways, Afghanistan may be a harder place to monitor U.S. spending. It is consistently ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and the Afghan government, including President Hamid Karzai, has repeatedly blocked U.S. and Afghan investigations into fraud and corruption - particularly when investigators focused on high-ranking Afghan officials.
As recently as Dec. 11, Karzai blamed foreigners for the now-infamous collapse of Kabul Bank, his country's largest private financial institution. The Afghan government lost some $850 million dollars, and to date none of the bank officials involved - or its Afghan shareholders - have been prosecuted.
While SIGAR does investigate abuses committed by Afghan contractors and others who receive U.S. funds, it does not deal directly with Afghan banks. Still, the office has investigated how U.S. money enters the Afghan financial system and how U.S. agencies watch over it.
In a report released this summer, the inspector general's office pointed up the consistent lack of Afghan cooperation in preventing and investigating corruption. The report also faulted various U.S. agencies, such as the Departments of State and Defense, for lack of financial oversight as they push dollars into Afghanistan.
"SIGAR auditors found that U.S. agencies have not done all they can to safeguard U.S. funds, and the Afghan government has not provided the cooperation needed to build a strong, secure financial system," former inspector general Herbert Richardson said in a press release. Richardson took over after Fields' resignation and then resigned himself a few months later.
For his part, Trent said his agency has not experienced problems with Afghans so far.
"The Afghan government has neither blocked nor impeded auditors and investigators in the course of their work," he said in an email. "Our investigators work relatively well with the Attorney General's office, specifically the Deputy Attorney General, and have realized several successes in the arrest and prosecution of some Afghans attempting to solicit bribes."
Responding to criticism from lawmakers, Trent and others at SIGAR said their agency is still relatively young. They pointed to one recent conviction, involving the largest bribery case in the history of the Afghan war, as an example of the work they plan to continue now that the agency is maturing.
In that case, a former Army reserve captain named Sidharth Handa was sentenced to prison in September and fined $315,000 for soliciting more than $1 million in bribes and for conspiracy to distribute heroin. Handa had committed the crimes while working in Kunar as a liaison officer with the provincial reconstruction team there, according to SIGAR reports.
The Handa case required some 15 months of work, Trent said.
While he could not discuss details of current investigations, Trent said his office is pursuing other "major" fraud cases and that it has "excellent cases that are already two or three years old."
For Trent, who began his three-decade career in civilian law enforcement as a policeman in Mesa, Ariz., and rose to top spots in the U.S. Customs Service, the Department of Homeland Security, and SIGAR, the Handa prosecution illustrated the slow-to-boil nature of many financial investigations - and it showed the kind of success his office can achieve.
"Investigations, I almost think of them as organic things," he said. "It takes time for them to grow."
A reporter asked if, drawing on his long experience, Trent had noticed specific patterns of abuse in Afghanistan, or ways money is wasted or stolen that are unique to wartime operations. He said he had seen only familiar, frustrating things.
"Greed, avarice, and opportunity. It's a story that's as old as time," he said.
Trent also appealed to servicemembers and business people, Afghans and Americans, working here, asking them to speak up when they encounter anything that could be fraud, waste or abuse.
"Call us," he said. "We can't do anything about it until we get the call."