“I still get upset about this,” says John Sopko, a normally good-natured government investigator now simmering with indignation in his Crystal City office. “You’re talking 600 million dollars.”
His meaty hands clasp a model of an Italian-made military aircraft, known as the G222, that the United States bought for the Afghan air force. “It’s notorious. It falls apart,” he says, jostling the replica.
Wings and propellers shed on cue. “Basically, it was described to me by pilots as a death trap.”
Sixteen of the planes sit uselessly at Kabul’s airport. Sopko has seen a lot of inexplicable waste in his two years as special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, but his eyes expand with incredulity over this example.
“Why did we buy $600 million worth of aircraft that doesn’t fly?”
His job is to find out. To that end, the former mob prosecutor and congressional oversight sleuth says he has launched a criminal investigation into the airplane purchase. It’s just one of 340 ongoing probes by his office into corruption, fraud and waste.
Washington has more than 70 inspectors general for its agencies, independent watchdogs mandated by law and ideally immune from political pressure. But none of them make as much noise on a regular basis as Sopko. He constantly rattles the Pentagon, defense contractors and U.S. assistance agencies, blasting out reports and media releases at the rate of roughly one a week, putting eye-popping dollar figures in the headers: “Afghan Ministries Unable to Manage & Account for $1 Billion in US Funds,” blared an e-mail this year. Another: “Weaknesses in $223 Million Justice Sector Program.”
Most investigations spring from informants’ tips and auditors’ hunches about high-dollar programs. But Sopko spends time on the ground in Afghanistan sniffing for malfeasance: The airplane investigation began last year when he noticed the G222s rusting on the runway in Kabul. It turned out they had been contracted for in 2008.
Acquaintances describe him as relentless, irreverent and remarkably candid for a Washington type. “He is not worried about his image,” says Marc Smolonsky, a former Health and Human Services official and oversight committee investigator in the House and Senate. “He is not worried about offending anyone.”
In well-worn khakis and a faded blue shirt, Sopko, 61, looks out of place in his spacious corner office on the same floor of a building that houses Northrop Grumman. But he fits the image of a hard-working guy from Ohio whose forbears were coal miners.
Sopko says he has two heroes.
That poster on the wall of Winston Churchill, clenching a cigar, clutching a Tommy gun? He’s one.
And . . . ?
“Him and Hunter Thompson,” the inspector general says.
Aha. John F. Sopko, the Gonzo IG — or at least as gonzo as Washington can tolerate.
Sopko oversees one of the most difficult and dangerous civilian assignments left in Afghanistan as Uncle Sam extracts himself from that 13-year slog, the longest U.S. war. He commands an agency with a staff of 200 people — 55 of them in Afghanistan, where only 20 percent of the country is considered secure.
The stocky half-Italian, half-Pole, with his pocket full of subpoenas, has taken on the biggest wartime rebuilding mess in U.S. history.
Since 2002, U.S. taxpayers have spent $103 billion to reconstruct Afghanistan — more than we’ve spent on any other single country for that purpose, Sopko says. More than on postwar Germany, the United Kingdom or Japan.
“When you consider what this guy is up against,” says Dan Moldea, an author and organized crime expert who’s known Sopko for more than 30 years, “he better be a gonzo.”
“You have Sopko going after the war profiteers in Afghanistan and even in the United States,” Moldea says. “It’s John against the world right now. . . . To hell with the consequences.”
As IG, Sopko can demand documents, take depositions and refer cases to the Justice Department for prosecution. (He also may carry a gun but declines to do so.) In his tenure so far, he has scored 42 convictions and recouped or saved $256 million, his office says.
It’s impossible to calculate how much was squandered or stolen in Afghanistan at this point, but Sopko says he knows why it happened.
“To some extent, we just came in and threw the money in and thought we were in Kansas,” says the IG, reposing on a rainy Friday afternoon on his office’s camelback couch. “Sometimes I feel like Dorothy and Toto; you know, I walk out there: ‘This sure isn’t Kansas, guys.’ ”
Besides recovering ill-gotten gains, busting bribe-takers and the like, SIGAR — the acronym for the office, pronounced cee-gar — also produces recommendations on how to never repeat what Sopko calls the “disaster” of Afghan aid. Namely: Don’t give a horribly corrupt, desperately poor country gobs of money with little oversight.
“The guy getting screwed is the taxpayer,” he says. “The guy getting screwed is the honest Afghan who sees the money going to the dishonest Afghan.”
Another $18 billion has been appropriated for Afghanistan reconstruction but not yet disbursed. And beyond that, the United States has committed to a decade of funding, says Sopko, who takes no position on whether it’s wise for the United States to keep pumping money into Kabul’s coffers.
“Look, I’m no Pollyanna here,” he says. Theft and bribery are thwarting future corporate investment and hindering the Afghan government’s ability to collect revenues, he says. The Taliban insurgency is bad enough, but chaos also looms if corruption scotches the “fragile gains” achieved so far, Sopko says.
“And we basically could lose the hearts and minds of the Afghan citizens, and that’s why we’re there,” he says.
Can it be turned around?
“That’s a tough one,” he says. “A really tough one.”
Sopko says he always wanted to prosecute criminals. One chilling childhood memory in particular may help explain why.
“My mom grew up in an Italian neighborhood and used to tell me horror stories about the Black Hand, the Mafia, La Cosa Nostra,” he remembers. Here’s one:
As a girl, his mother was visiting a friend whose father was rich; they were playing with dolls. “A shot came in the window and blew a doll’s head off,” Sopko says. Apparently, the mob was extorting the girl’s father.
“It was an image of the evil out there,” Sopko says.
The son of New Deal Democrats, he went to law school in Ohio, then worked as a state prosecutor before joining the Justice Department’s organized-crime strike force in 1978 in Cleveland. By then, the city was known as the bombing capital of America thanks to a war between Irish and Italian crime families involved in labor racketeering, extortion, gambling and prostitution.
Sopko proved himself to be a tireless young Turk, making cases that brought down the hierarchy of the city’s Italian mob. His biggest score was convicting the elderly family capo James Licavoli, a.k.a. Jack White.
“Watching him working in trial was both inspirational and entertaining,” recalls Doug Domin, then an FBI agent. “He was fearless in the courtroom.”
In 1982, Sopko left Cleveland for Washington to be minority counsel for the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations and never returned. He worked as a Capitol Hill staffer for more than 20 years, doing oversight investigations on subjects as diverse as health insurance, cybersecurity, biological terrorism, organized crime and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the post-Soviet era.
His office overflows with mementos from those days. Slung on the back of a door is a black messenger bag with an orange patch that says, “Think before spilling anthrax.” Nearby is a box of Iranian laundry detergent emblazoned with its brand name in English: “Barf.”
Sopko says his wife, Nancy Lubin, picked it up in her travels. He met Lubin in the 1980s when she was a Sovietologist in the federal Office of Technology Assessment. Essentially, they bonded over organized crime, he says. She’s an expert on Central Asia and the Caucasus — and the Russian mob. They have a daughter who wants to be a sportswriter.
Sopko held ranking posts in the Commerce Department during the Clinton administration in the 1990s, handling responses to an onslaught of congressional and grand jury investigations. During the George W. Bush era, he did a stint as deputy director of the Homeland Security Institute, producing studies and policy recommendations for the Department of Homeland Security.
“I used to say I ran a think tank for a brain-dead agency, the DHS,” he gibes.
In 2012, Sopko quit a comfortable partner’s position at a white-shoe law firm to take the IG job. He set about finding auditors, diggers and law-enforcers brave enough to work in Afghanistan.
Sopko called his old mob-busting FBI buddy from Cleveland, Doug Domin.
“I’m putting the band back together,” he told Domin.
Three decades had passed, but the retired G-Man eagerly signed on to be Sopko’s chief investigator.
“In Washington, there are two ways to make investigations effective,” says Smolonsky, the former House and Senate staffer. “One way is to put people in jail, which obviously gets attention. The second is to make the results as widely public as possible.”
Sopko frequently sends his findings to reporters ahead of their official distribution. That way he can knock his opponents — usually in the military and State Department — back on their heels with preemptive good publicity for SIGAR.
At a recent hearing on the Hill, Sopko accused the U.S. Agency for International Development of failing to produce documents to Congress. A USAID official, Larry Sampler, was forced to rebut those allegations, supplied by Sopko’s office and published in USA Today the morning of the hearing.
It was far from the usual scripted, genteel interactions between top agency bureaucrats.
“I need to correct the record,” Sampler told a hostile House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee. “The allegation that we covered up information coming to Congress is false, and I find it somewhat offensive.”
The men did not exchange handshakes or other pleasantries after the session.
In Afghanistan, the military worked up a public affairs strategy to neutralize Sopko — to knock down his audit reports and inspections preemptively, before they became public, by citing corrective actions the military had taken.
As first revealed by USA Today, a slide presentation prepared for the top U.S. general in Afghanistan said the best way to beat Sopko was for the military to gather its ammunition and fire first; it knew what was coming, having gotten advance notice of the IG’s audits and investigations.
“In the past we may have shot where we saw the duck, but now, with our plan of action — we will bag our limit of birds before Mr. Sopko wakes up to feed his dogs,” the presentation said.
When he was a kid delivering newspapers in Cincinnati, Sopko says, he developed an awareness of the media’s mission. His wagon was loaded with the Cincinnati Post and Times Star, a Scripps paper. He can still summon the lighthouse beams of its logo and the slogan: “Give light and the people will find their own way.”
“Maybe that stuck,” he reflects today.
SIGAR’s office walls are hung with framed enlargements of articles from The Washington Post, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times citing SIGAR’s work. He delights in exposing such white elephants as a lavish new $34 million headquarters that U.S. commanders told The Post they didn’t want and is likely to be demolished without being used.
“There’s a general, I used to call him General Huff and Puff; he would call up every time his boss’s picture was in the paper,” Sopko recalls. “I said, ‘Let’s talk about the problem you can fix, and your boss’s picture won’t be in the paper.’ ”
“The press is part of the solution,” Sopko insists. “It’s not an enemy!”
Very kind of him to say so.
“But, yeah, I use the press,” he says later, then quickly backpedals. “I don’t use it. I work with it.”
One rap against Sopko could be that he likes to grandstand and embarrass his targets. After all, shining a harsh light on them reflects glory back to him.
“Well, I don’t like to embarrass people for the sake of embarrassing people,” he says. “I’m not evil. I don’t like to pull the wings off of flies, either. But embarrassment has been a recognized tool in the criminal justice system.”
Sopko has long wanted to be an inspector general, say those who know him well.
“I was fat, dumb and happy” in private practice, he says. “I was making a lot more money than I am now.”
As much as he loves to schmooze, now he has work to do — ordinary stuff, nothing gonzo.
“Catch some crooks,” he says.