It looks like Major John Cockerham might have some competition for his title
as most-crooked contracting official in Iraq. The New York Times reports
that a plethora of criminal investigations, all part of a new Pentagon anti-corruption push, are open into what exactly happened to "weapons, supplies and other materiel" dispensed in that country as part of over $40 billion in reconstruction aid. And one of the investigations -- though it's maddeningly unclear as to what the charge even is -- centers around a former aide to General David Petraeus, now the commanding general in Iraq.
Contracting fraud in the effort to supply and equip Iraqi security forces, Afghan soldiers and U.S. troops is suspected to be immense. Over 70 cases are currently under investigation in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan, according to the paper, for contracts worth more that $5 billion. So far, investigators have uncovered evidence of upwards of $15 million in bribes.
One such case involves Lieutenant Colonel Levonda Joey Selph, a master logistics officer who worked with Petraeus when he commanded the effort to train and equip Iraqi security forces in 2004 and 2005. Petraeus has already commented that he considered the rapid preparation of Iraqi soldiers and police to be a greater priority than scrupulous bookkeeping. As yet, Petraeus is not suspected of any wrongdoing -- and indeed, even what Selph is suspected of having done is unclear. But here's what is: Selph ran a massive logistics operation, and one that was ripe for abuse.
That operation moved everything from AK-47s, armored vehicles and plastic explosives to boots and Army uniforms, according to officials who were involved in it. Her former colleagues recall Colonel Selph as a courageous officer who was willing to take substantial personal risks to carry out her mission and was unfailingly loyal to General Petraeus and his directives to move quickly in setting up the logistics operation.
âShe was kind of like the Pony Express of the Iraqi security forces,â said Victoria Wayne, who was then deputy director of logistics for the overall Iraqi reconstruction program.
Still, Colonel Selph also ran into serious problems with a company she oversaw that failed to live up to a contract it had signed to carry out part of that logistics mission.
It is not clear exactly what Colonel Selph is being investigated for. Colonel Selph, reached by telephone twice on Monday, said she would speak to reporters later but did not answer further messages left for her.
Even outside of Selph's command, the paper reports, there are indications of how corruption nibbled around the edges of a variety of contracts. Iraqis, U.S. contractors, foreign contractors, U.S. military officials, and U.S. civilian workers are under investigation for everything from "conspiracy, bribery, product substitution and bid-rigging or double-billing involving large dollar amounts or more senior contracting officials."
But by far the most alarming charges involve the laxity of controls over the weapons distributed to Iraqi security forces. After government reports indicated serious problems with accounting for the weapons -- raising the possibility that they've gone to the black market and are being used to attack U.S. forces -- the Pentagon's inspector general, Lieutenant General Claude "Mick" Kicklighter, launched an investigation. He's about to leave for an "indefinite" period in Iraq at the helm of an 18-investigator team. That inquiry comes at the behest of Sen. John Warner (R-VA), the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and it's most likely only the first salvo of a broader Pentagon anti-corruption effort.
Corruption is a way of life in the new Iraq. Transparency International, an anti-corruption watchdog, labeled the country the second-most-corrupt business environment on the planet in 2005. Just yesterday, McClatchy reported that any Iraqi doing business in Anbar Province -- including Iraqi contractors with the U.S. -- pays an "insurgent tax" to militant groups who partially finance their fight against the U.S. through shakedowns. All that raises doubt about how much good a new anti-corruption effort can accomplish at this point.