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Agency accused of covering up misuse of Afghanistan funds

Apr. 3, 2014 - 01:15PM   |  
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Officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development denied reports that they are covering up fraud and abuse of reconstruction funds in Afghanistan, saying that necessary steps are taken to protect American taxpayers’ investments there.

But in testimony before Congress on Thursday, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko said USAID officials have routinely trusted corrupt Afghan ministries with billions in funds, then brushed aside questions surrounding how that money has been used.

Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee called the accusations disturbing, especially given the rapid drawdown of American troops in the country and multibillion-dollar investment the U.S. has made there.

Since 2002, the development agency has spent more than $18 billion on rebuilding efforts in Afghanistan, including a variety of health care, education and agriculture projects.

Donald Sampler, a senior official in the agency’s Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs, told lawmakers that the projects are critical to supporting the still-young Afghan government, and undergo rigorous oversight despite the country’s shaky security situation.

But Sopko said his office’s investigation found numerous cases of USAID losing track of cash — amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars — given to Afghan ministries for work later deemed unsatisfactory or unfinished. In some cases, he said, the agency withheld information about the problems, citing ambiguous security issues.

“Too much money spent too quickly without proper safeguards is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “More than lip service needs to be given to oversight.

On Thursday, USA Today reported that documents it obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests show money meant for reconstruction projects may have ended up in the hands of terrorist groups instead, and that no reliable mechanism for screening contractors for terrorist ties is in place at the agency.

Sampler insisted that oversight efforts are continuing, but working directly with a government battling corruption problems “carries an element of risk.”

Lawmakers said they were dismayed by the poor accountability. Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, called Afghanistan “one of the most corrupt countries on the planet” and questioned why better checks aren’t in place to protect taxpayer funds.

The report came just one day after SIGAR investigators found serious structural flaws in the $11 million-plus Baghlan prison in Afghanistan, which members cited as another example of wasted spending in Afghanistan.

The prison, which sits about 200 miles north of Kabul, was designed to house about 500 inmates but has already partially collapsed because of earthquakes in the area. Investigators found much of the prison structure is comprised of unreinforced brick walls, which “can be compromised by removing the mortar between the bricks.”

That’s hazardous not only because of frequent seismic activity in the area, but also because of the likelihood of escape attempts by inmates.

It’s unclear whether the Afghan contractors, the Afghanistan government or the U.S. State Department will have to pay for plans to demolish and rebuild the site, as the inspector general suggests.

But the SIGAR report noted that regardless of who pays for the work, it’s likely to fail again. Documents provided by the State Department show rebuilding plans would use the same questionable materials and planning as the first build did.

In 2011, the Commission on Wartime Spending estimated that U.S. agencies lost nearly $60 billion in the first decade of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan due to poor oversight, fraud and waste.

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