By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 30, 2008
Federal investigators called at least nine current and former employees of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction before a grand jury in Richmond on March 18, and the FBI has summoned others for questioning this week, marking a new phase in the probe of allegations against SIGIR chief Stuart W. Bowen Jr., according to witnesses and other sources familiar with the investigation.
The FBI and U.S. attorneys have been investigating whether Bowen and his top deputy, Ginger Cruz, improperly accessed staff e-mails in violation of federal law. Current and former SIGIR employees interviewed by the FBI and questioned before the grand jury have complained of mismanagement and abuse of authority, including retaliatory firing of staff members.
On the basis of the grand jury questioning and testimony, several witnesses said they believe that the government has strong evidence against Bowen, a former White House associate counsel who heads the lead U.S. agency in charge of tracking fraud, waste and abuse of more than $21 billion in funds for Iraq reconstruction. "Based on what I saw, they should have a good case," said one key witness who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the case is ongoing.
Bowen's attorney, Bradford A. Berenson, said that based on conversations with prosecutors and witnesses who testified before the grand jury, he does not believe that the government has a case. A previous grand jury did not indict, although more recent allegations are more detailed and involve several staff members who had tried to help SIGIR correct its problems, according to several staffers interviewed.
"Based upon my knowledge of the investigation so far, I have seen no evidence that leads me to believe a crime has been committed here," Berenson said in an e-mail. "I have confidence that the grand jury will take a fair and impartial view of the evidence and the law and will reach the same conclusion, as it already has with respect to other insubstantial allegations raised in the past by disgruntled former employees of SIGIR."
A focus of the investigation is whether Bowen and Cruz read staff e-mails even after the office of the Army general counsel advised them in writing that doing so would be improper, according to sources questioned by investigators and documents obtained by The Washington Post. The Army Information Center provides SIGIR's e-mail service.
A federal criminal statute prohibits knowingly accessing a government computer without authorization or exceeding the scope of one's authorized access. A separate federal law makes it a crime to access electronic communications, such as e-mails, without authorization. Both statutes provide for fines and prison time.
Four former SIGIR officials said they told investigators that Bowen and Cruz looked at e-mails of several employees. One official claimed to have witnessed Bowen going through e-mails of three employees in late 2005.
In March 2006, SIGIR made a formal request to the Army for regular access to staff e-mail, according to documents obtained by The Post. Army associate counsel Paul V. DeAgostino denied the request in a detailed letter, which has also been obtained by The Post.
"You stated that there was currently not any specific individual or group of individuals that were suspected of any wrongdoing, but that your agency was interested in instituting a monitoring program as a prophylactic measure to ensure employee compliance," the letter reads in part.
"Regarding real-time monitoring, only a properly authorized law enforcement agency, with concurrent coordination with legal counsel and review by a magistrate would be capable of performing this action. . . . In sum, Army regulations do not authorize the implementation of the type of monitoring program contemplated by your agency," DeAgostino wrote.
In 2007, after the Army ruling, Bowen and Cruz continued to monitor staff e-mails, according to SIGIR employees at the time. At one point, Cruz held a stack of papers in her hand and claimed they were e-mails of a senior employee, one official said. Staff members also said that Cruz bragged to senior staffers in early 2006 about reading workers' e-mails and in one case shared e-mails from one employee.
"Bowen and Cruz were looking at e-mails to find out who was loyal and who was not," said a former SIGIR official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
Berenson said senior officials reviewed employee e-mails "as part of an authorized internal investigation into possible press leaks. SIGIR policy permits such e-mail reviews and all employees are notified, regularly reminded and trained on these policies."
In an e-mailed statement Wednesday, Cruz blamed disgruntled employees for the complaints to federal authorities. "SIGIR has provided a remarkably effective service in identifying and pursuing fraud and waste in the United States' mission in Iraq over the past four years," she wrote. "Former employees who have been less committed to our mission and others who have been the subject of our work evidently want to distract our attention and derail our work."
SIGIR is an independent agency, with Bowen reporting to both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. In an e-mailed statement, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Rice is aware of the probes.
"It is our view that Inspector Generals must have independence in their work. In the case of allegations of wrongdoing against Inspectors General, the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency is the appropriate body for investigations," he said. "We have been aware that the PCIE and the U.S. Attorney have been reviewing the activities of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Stuart Bowen. As these are ongoing investigations, we will not offer further comment on the matter at this time."