Senate May Reverse Closing of Iraq Auditor’s Office

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The military authorization bill signed by President Bush in mid-October calls for the termination of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) by October 1, 2007. Susan Collins (R – Maine), chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, says that provision was not in the conference version of the bill, the New York Times reports. In addition, some analysts say that the content of reports issued by the office, which were critical of weapons oversight by the U.S. military and accounting methods used by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), led to the decision by House conferees to set a date for closing the office.

Bi-partisan support is building in the Senate for legislation that will reverse the order. Senator John W. Warner (R-VA), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, issued a statement last week supporting the office and the Inspector General, Stuart W. Bowen, Jr., the Times reports. “Given that his office has performed important work and that much remains to be done,” Warner said, "I intend to join Senator Collins in consulting with our colleagues to extend his charter.”

“It's truly a mystery to me,” Ms. Collins said referring to the provision to close the office. “I looked at what I thought was the final version of the conference report and that provision was not in at that time. The one thing I can confirm,” the senator said, according to the Times, “is that this was a last-minute insertion.”

A report released last week by the Special Investigator General found that the U.S. military had not tracked 370,000 weapons handed over to the Iraqi military or even recorded the serial numbers on the weapons, so that they can be identified or traced. The weapons audit had been requested by Senator Warner.

In a statement to Congress published on the office's Web site on September 22, the Inspector General's office accused the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of using “dummy” vendors to make it look like they had spent the full $360 million of reconstruction funds that would expire on September 30.

“We recommend that the Commanding General, USACE, direct the Gulf Regions Division-Project and Contracting Office to immediately review the 96 obligations established for “dummy vendors,” the report says, “and to the extent practicable, take steps to obligate these funds consistent with GAO and DoD guidance on what constitute proper obligations by September 30, 2006.”

SIGIR, the successor to the Coalition Provisional Authority Inspector General (CPA-IG), was created by Congress to provide oversight of the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund and all obligations, expenditures, and revenues associated with reconstruction and rehabilitation activities in Iraq.

Defenders of the decision to close the Special Inspector General's office say that the office was intended to close 10 months after 80 percent of the approximately $20 billion in Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Funds had been spent, says. The Inspector General had reported that 74 percent of the money had been spent by this past summer.

“That purpose [of the special IG] is coming to a close,” said John Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee, reports. After the deadline, he said that any ongoing oversight of contracts in Iraq, as well as open cases, would be handled by the inspector general's offices at the Department of Defense and the State Department (DoS).

Bowen's office has conducted 256 investigations, including some well-publicized cases involving U.S. companies Bechtel Corp., Parsons Corp. and Halliburton, and presented 73 congressional reports. In his quarterly report to Congress in July Bowen said that 92 preliminary and criminal cases remain open.

Bowen's office employs 110 people in Arlington, Virginia, and 55 people in Baghdad, says, in contrast with the Pentagon inspector general who currently has seven auditors in Baghdad and others working in Iraq-related issues in the U.S. and elsewhere, the New York Times reports.

Comparisons with resources in the Pentagon and State Department oversight agencies can be misleading, Howard Krongard, State Department inspector general, told the Times. Krongard said that resources would probably flow to State and the Pentagon if Congress shuts Mr. Bowen's office down.

The Inspector General has also been critical of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in his reports, which, along with the Department of Defense, is the primary spender of the reconstruction money, says.

According to written testimony prepared for Congress and published on the Agency's Web site, “Oversight and management of the Basrah Children's Hospital Project schedule and cost have been hampered by the lack of effective program management and oversight by the Department of State and USAID. The Chief of Mission, responsible for the supervision and direction of all U.S. assistance programs, did not establish a management structure for carrying out that responsibility.”

But USAID spokesman David Snider expressed appreciation for the Inspector General's office. “We have welcomed and supported the work of the Special Inspector General for Iraq, with whom we work closely,” he said, according to “USAID remains committed to ensuring that the resources provided by Congress are managed effectively and transparently.”

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