By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 11, 2011; A04
The head of the office charged with investigating corruption in the multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild Afghanistan has resigned, the White House said Monday, following congressional demands that the White House replace him.
Arnold Fields, a retired Marine major general, was named special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction in 2008, when the office was first established along the lines of a similar effort that has uncovered hundreds of millions of dollars of waste and fraud in Iraq. Fields's resignation comes a week after he fired his two deputies, saying the organization needed "new blood."
"The President and the American people owe him a debt of gratitude for his courage, leadership, and selfless service to our nation," the White House said in a statement announcing Fields's resignation.
Fields said he intended "to use the next month to ensure a smooth transition," but no immediate replacement was named.
A bipartisan group of senators, led by Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), asked President Obama in September to "begin the process of removing" Fields based on concerns they had raised repeatedly since early 2009.
The Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, is charged with oversight of the $56 billion that the United States has committed since 2002 to nonmilitary development and humanitarian assistance programs.
But an August review of the office by the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency found that its audits were of poor quality and that the office lacked a strategic plan.
"I don't mean to be cruel," McCaskill told Fields at a November hearing. "I don't think you're the right person for this job."
The hearing, of the Senate homeland security committee's contracting oversight subcommittee, focused on SIGAR's completion of only four contract audits. The agency had identified only $8 million in misspent money with its $46 million in office expenditures.
Fields was also criticized for awarding a $96,000 no-bid, two-month contract last year to Joseph Schmitz, who resigned as the Defense Department inspector general in 2005, to "monitor" SIGAR's performance.
In a letter Monday to his staff, Fields called the job "one of the most rewarding and certainly one of the most challenging I have thus far experienced," noting that he was "asked to build this organization from the ground up."
SIGAR has been plagued with problems since its inception during the last year of the George W. Bush administration, when Congress established it as an independent watchdog but failed to fully fund it for nearly a year. Hiring lagged, and Fields had difficulty recruiting auditors and investigators.
By the end of 2009, only one contract audit had been performed, and SIGAR was criticized for devoting unwarranted effort to subjects Congress considered outside its mandate, such as an investigation of the role of women in the Afghan election that year.
Comparisons were repeatedly made to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a more visibly aggressive agency under the leadership of Stuart W. Bowen Jr., a former Bush aide. Testifying at the subcommittee hearing, Bowen promoted the establishment by Congress of a permanent special investigator for overseas contingency operations that would take the place of the current, temporary offices.
"If such an office had existed, say, at the beginning of the Iraq reconstruction program, the amount of waste it would have averted would pay for it in our lifetimes," said Bowen, whose Iraq mandate is winding down with the U.S. disengagement there.
The September letter to Obama was the third complaining about SIGAR from McCaskill, who chairs the subcommittee, and Republican Sens. Tom Coburn (Okla.), Susan M. Collins (Maine) and Charles E. Grassley (Iowa). It called SIGAR a "failing organization."
"It has been clear for several months that SIGAR's mission is not being served effectively," the lawmakers wrote. "We urge you to act now" in replacing Fields "with an individual who will oversee the significant organizational change needed within SIGAR to provide adequate oversight of the billions of dollars of spending on reconstruction in Afghanistan."
The four issued a joint statement Monday applauding Fields's departure "after months of Congressional pressure amid mounting evidence of incompetence and mismanagement."
"With billions of dollars being spent in Afghanistan, our country must have top-notch leadership at the agency responsible for rooting out the waste and fraud that can jeopardize our efforts," McCaskill said. She said she hoped Fields's "departure will allow the agency to turn over a new leaf and finally begin to do the important contracting oversight work we so desperately need."
Coburn said: "I look forward to the president swiftly naming a successor."