WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. official charged with combating corruption in the multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild Afghanistan failed Thursday to convince his congressional critics that he's qualified to handle his watchdog job.
In a packed Senate hearing room, Arnold Fields, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, gave an impassioned opening statement, saying he built the oversight office from nothing to an organization of 123 people in just two years. Fields, a retired Marine Corps major general, said his leadership skills have never been called into question. Until now.
"My leadership has been referred to as inept," Fields said. "That's the first time."
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who chairs the Senate contracting oversight subcommittee, said repeatedly 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.
Fields' organization — known as SIGAR — has completed only a few audits of Afghanistan reconstruction contracts even though thousands of contracts worth billions of dollars have been awarded for rebuilding work in the war-torn country.
McCaskill and several Republican senators have called on President Barack Obama to fire Fields for incompetence and mismanagement. Only the president can dismiss an inspector general.
"You are not the right person for the job," McCaskill told Fields.
Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., the subcommittee's top Republican, echoed McCaskill's concerns.
"I just want you to follow the money," Brown said. "I want to know if there's any bribes or payoffs going on."
The White House has been reluctant to pick a side. Spokesman Tommy Vietor said Fields and his staff "have performed under very difficult circumstances to set up operations in Afghanistan." But Vietor also said the White House supported the hearing so Fields and the subcommittee can "discuss how to best provide oversight on Afghanistan reconstruction."
Fields, appointed in 2008 by President George W. Bush, told the subcommittee that delays in getting more than $20 million to establish the organization set back plans to quickly hire experienced investigators and auditors.
McCaskill also blasted Fields for giving Joseph Schmitz, a former Pentagon inspector general, a two-month consulting contract worth $95,000. The contract award followed a series of independent reviews of Fields' office that uncovered multiple problems, including a failure to meet minimum standards for conducting investigations.
Under the contract, Schmitz would help SIGAR improve its investigations unit to avoid any suspension or revocation of its law enforcement powers by Attorney General Eric Holder.
But according to McCaskill, Schmitz was a poor choice because his tenure as Pentagon inspector general was marred by allegations of ethical misconduct and misleading Congress. Fields said he was "completely unaware" of any controversy in Schmitz's background. He said he didn't vet Schmitz first because he had no reason to doubt his integrity.
McCaskill pounced. "In preparation for this hearing, we did basic investigatory work that SIGAR should be doing," she said. "An audit agency is careful about who they hire."
Schmitz, who resigned as Pentagon inspector general in 2005, has called the description of his service "misleading" and "defamatory." The allegations were independently investigated and Schmitz was cleared of any wrongdoing.
McCaskill said she suspected there was an ulterior motive to hiring Schmitz. Conversations before Thursday's hearing between her staff and Fields' office revealed that there was an expectation Schmitz would be joined in the work with Louis Freeh, the FBI director during the Clinton administration and now chairman of a management consulting company.
Freeh's role would be to perform "outreach" to Holder to ensure SIGAR's law enforcement capacity wasn't diminished, according to McCaskill.
"You understand what this looks like, don't you?" McCaskill said. "It looks like you were trying to hire someone to help influence the attorney general of the United States."
Fields denied that was the intent, and he said Freeh declined to participate in the contract with Schmitz.
The inspectors general at the FDIC and Tennessee Valley Authority led the independent reviews of Fields' office on behalf of the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.
Fields' office has issued 34 audit reports over the last 18 months examining reconstruction projects worth more than $4.4 billion, according to a report to Congress. 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.
During the hearing, McCaskill also noted that an audit cited by Fields as an example of SIGAR's prowess was based largely on work done by the inspector general at USAID.
Since being established in 2008, the SIGAR has received $46.2 million for operating expenses, 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/
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