WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. watchdog charged with combating corruption in the multibillion–dollar effort to rebuild Afghanistan is defending his reputation Thursday as congressional critics press President Barack Obama to fire him for incompetence and mismanagement.
Arnold Fields, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, is scheduled to testify before the Senate contracting oversight subcommittee in the wake of withering reviews from several senators, including Democrat Claire McCaskill of Missouri, a close ally of Obama's and the panel's chair.
Only the president can dismiss an inspector general.
The White House on Wednesday appeared reluctant to pick a side. Spokesman Tommy Vietor said Wednesday that Fields and his staff "have performed under very difficult circumstances to set up operations in Afghanistan." But Vietor also said the White House supports the hearing so Fields and the subcommittee can "discuss how to best provide oversight on Afghanistan reconstruction."
Chief among the senators' complaints is that Fields has failed to aggressively investigate allegations of fraud and waste involving the nearly $56 billion the U.S. has committed to improving schools, roads, electricity and medical facilities in Afghanistan. Instead, the senators say Fields has produced a series of mostly bland audits that haven't curbed the corruption undermining the U.S. mission and alienating Afghans from their own government.
Matthew McLauchlin, a former U.S. government official who supported legislation that created the oversight office in 2008, said the inspector general's office was intended to be an organization that fined people or put them in jail.
"They were to be focused on investigations and prosecutions," said McLauchlin, who served as the chief financial officer to the U.S. ambassador and commanding general in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2008. "But it's become an organization that does audits making recommendations on how things can be improved."
Fields, a retired Marine Corps major general appointed by former President George W. Bush, has argued that delays in getting more than $20 million to establish the organization set back plans to quickly hire experienced investigators and auditors.
Despite the slow start, the office — known as SIGAR — has issued 34 audit reports over the last 18 months examining reconstruction projects worth more than $4.4 billion, according to a report Fields sent to Congress last month. Fraud and corruption investigations SIGAR has conducted with other U.S. and Afghan agencies have resulted in $6.6 million in fines, repayments and recovered money.
But those figures haven't impressed McCaskill and other senators. In a letter to Obama in late September, McCaskill, along with Sens. Tom Coburn, R–Okla., Chuck Grassley, R–Iowa, and Susan Collins, R–Maine, called SIGAR a "failing organization" in need of new leadership.
An analysis by Coburn's staff shows that inspectors general at the Pentagon, State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development and for Iraq reconstruction have all been much more efficient than SIGAR at generating savings and recoveries.
The senators have also blasted Fields for giving Joseph Schmitz, a former Pentagon inspector general, a two–month consulting contract worth $95,000 to help the office make organizational changes to improve its effectiveness. Schmitz's tenure as Pentagon inspector general was marred by allegations of ethical misconduct and misleading Congress, according to the senators.
"The whipped cream and the cherry on this particular situation is that here's somebody who's supposed to be the eyes and ears looking at contracting in a major way in Afghanistan, and he hires someone on a no–bid contract for $95,000 for two months' work," McCaskill said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in late September. "And you wonder why the public thinks we've lost our minds."
Schmitz, who resigned as Pentagon inspector general in 2005, has called the senators' description of his service "misleading" and "defamatory." The allegations were independently investigated and he was cleared of any wrongdoing, Schmitz says.
Before Fields testifies, the subcommittee will hear from the inspectors general at the FDIC and Tennessee Valley Authority, who led a series of independent reviews of Fields' office that uncovered multiple problems, including a failure to meet minimum standards for conducting investigations.
Fields says all the recommendations called for in the reviews have been implemented.
Since being established in 2008, the SIGAR has received $46.2 million for operating expenses and has a staff of 117, according to the report to Congress. Fields is seeking a budget of $35.6 million in 2011 and wants to hire about 60 more employees to better track reconstruction spending in Afghanistan.
Special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction: http://www.sigar.mil/