U.S. officials are investigating the deaths of two American contractors who were ambushed last month in Iraq after one of them told government officials he was concerned about his financial dealings with the Iraqi Ministry of Defense.
Government officials and co-workers of Dale C. Stoffel, 43, say they are unsure whether his death and that of a colleague near Taji were related to his complaints about lack of payment and the potential for corruption, or whether the two men were victims of more random violence against Americans by insurgents.
A Pentagon spokesman said yesterday that the Defense Department is investigating the killings but would not comment further. An FBI spokesman said he could not comment on this incident but said the agency investigates all deaths of American civilians in Iraq. The deaths were the subject of an article in yesterday's Los Angeles Times.
Stoffel and Joseph J. Wemple, 43, were killed after their BMW sport-utility vehicle was rammed head-on as they drove from a meeting with U.S. military officials in Taji. A business colleague said the meeting was held to discuss ways to improve financial accountability for a large project they were about to begin. Both men were shot several times about 10 miles from the base in Taji, and photos of their possessions were later posted on a radical Islamist Web site.
Stoffel had negotiated a project to rehabilitate Soviet-era tanks, armored personnel carriers and other armored machinery for Iraqi security forces to use, according to colleagues at CLI USA Inc., a Pennsylvania-based consulting firm where Stoffel was executive vice president. The project was the first of its kind issued by the Iraqi Ministry of Defense and was part of the effort to bolster Iraqi forces, a key element of the United States' exit strategy in Iraq. Stoffel was administering the umbrella contract through his own firm, Wye Oak Technology, but CLI was poised to do much of the work, colleagues said.
In December, Stoffel began to complain about not being paid and expressed concerns that the way Iraqi officials were handling finances could lead to problems, said William C. Stein Jr., president of CLI. Stoffel wrote letters to the Pentagon and to several government officials trying to ensure transparency and accountability for the contract, Stein said.
"Our major concern was, we were hired to do a job, and that's all we wanted to do," Stein said in a telephone interview yesterday. "We wanted to do the job and make sure that all the money issues were clearly visible to all the coalition partners and make sure accountability was not a question."
Stein said Stoffel and Wemple were in Iraq for most of 2004, working on projects in the Green Zone for the U.S. government. Stoffel returned home around Thanksgiving and had "misgivings" about going back to Iraq before financial matters were settled. The company petitioned Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) for help, and Santorum sent a letter to the Pentagon asking for the matters to be examined.
"We were contacted by Mr. Stoffel to assist him in obtaining payments for a contract that they had done some work on in Iraq," said Christine Shott, a spokeswoman for Santorum's office. "He wanted to get payment for the work they did. Senator Santorum sent a letter to [Defense Secretary Donald H.] Rumsfeld, as we would for any constituent, to make sure they were aware of the situation."
Stoffel returned to Iraq days before he was killed and had a meeting with an Army general at a base in Taji that was centered on fixing the financial problems, Stein said.
"There's a lot of questions to be answered," Stein said. "It is a very large contract, our government officials come down on the folks over there and try to get them paid, and mysteriously there's this event that takes place that kills two of our employees. Is it just being in the wrong place at the wrong time? I think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered here."
Stein said CLI has not received any money for the outstanding contract and has pulled all of its employees out of Iraq since the killings.