Asia Pacific

Watchdog critical of State Department contracting in Afghanistan

A U.S. government watchdog found "serious deficiencies" in how the State Department awarded a contract job in Afghanistan, according to a letter from the organization to Secretary of State John Kerry released Thursday.
In the letter dated Monday, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, raised a number of concerns on the oversight practices of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) at the State Department and how they awarded a contract for the training of Afghan justice workers.
Sopko said the International Development Law Organization (IDLO), the nongovernmental organization awarded the contract, is "ill-prepared to manage and account for how U.S.-taxpayer funds will be spent," while also criticizing the State Department's role in awarding the contract.
The United States has maintained that programs such as training and rule-of-law programs are central to ending the international presence in the country and allowing Afghans to take control of their own security.
Those programs involve "millions of dollars" of U.S. taxpayer money the letter said.
"The State Department – for some inexplicable reason – gave IDLO $50 million in U.S. taxpayer dollars, then gave away any oversight of this foreign entity," Sopko said in a written statement to CNN about the report. "The irony here is that State violated its own written policy and gave them a huge check to teach the Afghans about the 'rule of law.' As the saying goes, you can't make this up. We're going to get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable."
Sopko said his office – Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR – was disturbed to learn the agreement for IDLO to take over the contract contained "even fewer oversight requirements" than the agreement for the previous contractor. The letter also cited testimony by a State Department official to SIGAR auditors that IDLO is unable to validate its own spending since it lacks proper international financial certifications.
"It seems ill-considered for INL to have awarded almost $50 million to an organization that may not have the ability to account for the use of those funds," Sopko wrote, "under an agreement in which INL failed to require proper provisions for oversight."
In a harshly worded section of the letter, Sopko referred to INL's assertion that it does not "have authority to compel IDLO to produce information" in the awarding of the contract as "disingenuous."
INL, the letter says, could have made the awarding of the contract contingent on a certain level of oversight. "This omission is particularly disturbing given that INL chose IDLO as the sole project implementer."
The lack of insight on the part of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs led Sopko's office to request information from the International Development Law Organization about its financial situation and relationships, of which Sopko said IDLO "has refused to fully comply with."
"IDLO's failure to comply with these requests raises serious concerns regarding its commitment to transparency and willingness to acknowledge the authority of the U.S. government to oversee how U.S. taxpayer funds are spent," Sopko wrote.
Subpoenas may also be issued to IDLO to "compel the production of any and all records IDLO possesses related to its operations in Afghanistan," the letter said.
Sopko recommended the State Department address the "deficiencies" in the agreement with IDLO, as well as the review of similar contracts and grants related to Afghan reconstruction to ensure they included proper oversight mechanisms.
The letter comes at a time when contracting fraud and waste in Afghanistan is receiving heightened attention in Washington.
On Wednesday, SIGAR released two separate reports highlighting problems with contractors in Afghanistan.
In one instance, SIGAR found a company contracted by the U.S. military in Afghanistan to build a school "freely substituted building materials without U.S. approval using a concrete ceiling that raises safety concerns due to the school's location in an earthquake zone."
A second audit found the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development lack the same authority the Pentagon has to terminate contracts with an entity later found to be affiliated with insurgent groups in Afghanistan or those deemed to be an enemy of the United States.
Earlier this month it was revealed that a new $34 million U.S. military compound built in Afghanistan – paid for by U.S. tax dollars – likely never would be used.

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