By Josh Boak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 18, 2010; A14
The mission to uncover waste and fraud in the billions of dollars spent rebuilding Afghanistan has become entangled in a campaign to fire the lead U.S. official tracking the money.
A bipartisan group of senators has asked the president to remove Arnold Fields as head of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, after a negative review this summer put his agency's law enforcement status at riskprompted the Justice Department to consider suspending the agency's law enforcement powers.
Critics question the quality of reports by the agency, which goes by the acronym SIGAR. They note that in some instances it duplicated the work of other agencies, or that it veered beyond its mandate to look instead at the participation of women in Afghan elections.
"My examination of Mr. Fields's record is that he would best serve his country by stepping aside from this particular job," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairman of the subcommittee on contracting oversight before which Fields will testify Thursday.
Fields said the two-year-old agency is at a pivotal point. It has completed 34 audits and has 81 ongoing investigations of contracts totaling $6.1 billion. And because most contractor personnel are Afghans, SIGAR is in the process of partnering with Afghan investigators to pursue criminal charges in that country's judicial system.
Fields, a retired Marine general who has led SIGAR since its formation, said he hoped McCaskill's hearing would not resemble a trial. "Any reasonable person would say that these matters have been a distraction," he said. "The depth and breadth of criticism by which this organization has been characterized is unprecedented."
A major complaint is that SIGAR tends to follow the lead of the joint contracting corruption task force, which comprises officials from various agencies. One reviewer said the agency should perform more audits that expose contracting fraud and then find mechanisms to ban those contractors.
SIGAR investigations have led to four convictions, nine dismissed contracts and $6 million recovered, according to its most recent quarterly report. By contrast, investigations since the 2004 creation of the inspector general for Iraq are credited with 41 convictions and $71.3 million recovered, while audits have recovered or saved $151.4 million. The agency says that 44 contractors have been debarred because of its work.
One congressional staffer cited a recent audit as an example of SIGAR's problems. The audit found that Afghan police stations were not built properly, but it did not identify systemic reasons why.
"We need an aggressive auditor who understands this is where the money is going and preventing the money from walking away, like we had in Iraq," McCaskill said, praising the work of Stuart W. Bowen Jr., Fields's counterpart for the Iraq war. The hearing is expected to revisit the idea of whether there should be one inspector general for both wars, she said.
Along with McCaskill, Sens. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) have also pressed for Fields's dismissal.
The review that forms the core of the senators' latest concerns was requested by Fields. "I wanted to put this organization in the best light that I could at this early stage of its existence," he said.
The review found administrative problems in SIGAR's investigative unit, which automatically prompted the Justice Department to consider suspending the agency's law enforcement powers.
One significant issue stemmed from an unsuccessful attempt by Fields to recruit a federal prosecutor as chief investigator. As a result, SIGAR did not actively hire staff investigators until late 2009.
Fields attributed the slow start to inadequate funding from Congress and an initial emphasis on performing audits that might lead to future criminal investigations.
In response to the review, Fields hired Joseph Schmitz, the Pentagon's inspector general from 2002 to 2005, as a consultant to monitor the changes made by SIGAR. Fields said he is confident his agency will retain its law enforcement status.
But bringing on Schmitz for $95,000 and about two months of work gave ammunition to critics. "They shouldn't have hired anybody," McCaskill said.