- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 13, 2014

The chairman of a key House oversight panel is calling for an investigation into what he says looks like a $175 million “slush fund” set up by the U.S. Agency for International Development to entice Afghan government officials into embracing Western-style reforms.

USAID officials said they set up the U.S.-Afghan Incentive Fund without objection from lawmakers last year and that the fund has been used in coordination with the World Bank to “drive reforms” in the war-torn nation, whose government was plagued by widespread corruption and bribery long before the U.S.-led invasion began in late 2001.

But Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who heads the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee overseeing the USAID spending in Afghanistan, told The Washington Times that he first learned of the fund during a heated exchange with the agency’s top official in the region last week and immediately thought, “Something here doesn’t smell right.”

The Utah Republican has now formally requested the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction to “investigate USAID ‘incentive funds’ of more than $75 million in 2012 and $100 million in 2014.”

“While USAID has already administered billions of dollars to the Afghan government during the reconstruction effort, I question whether the incentive funding is necessary and effective, or whether it is instead essentially a lobbying expenditure,” Mr. Chaffetz wrote in the letter to SIGAR on Friday, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.

In an interview, Mr. Chaffetz said comments by a top USAID official at an April 3 subcommittee hearing made the incentive fund “sound like a slush fund for manipulating how members of the Afghan parliament act.”

“What is that money, how has it been used, and who did we pay off with it?” the congressman said.

USAID officials suggest Mr. Chaffetz is overreacting. But the situation has struck a chord with Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko, who said over the weekend that he, too, was “concerned based on what I heard at the hearing.”

“I am directing my staff to look into it,” Mr. Sopko said. “We look forward to working closely with [Mr. Chaffetz] on this.”

Rep. John F. Tierney, Massachusetts Democrat and the ranking member of the subcommittee, did not respond to request for comment.

The Chaffetz investigation marks the latest in an escalating congressional scrutiny of USAID’s activities in Afghanistan as its role in the country is debated ahead of the U.S. military pullout later this year. At the center of such scrutiny is the extent to which some $20 billion channeled through USAID toward Afghan reconstruction efforts over the past 12 years has succeeded in propping up a government in Kabul that will be able to sustain itself once the Americans leave.

Many lawmakers appear to be increasingly vexed by the manner in which the agency has accounted for its programs. SIGAR auditors say USAID is involved in a calculated campaign to conceal from Congress and the American public the widespread fraud and corruption within Afghan government ministries that receive agency money.

At issue are dozens of “Afghan ministry capability assessments,” some of which were performed internally by USAID and others that the agency contracted out to the private accounting firms. While SIGAR used the documents as the basis for a scathing audit report in January that outlined the high risk of fraud and abuse across the Afghan ministries, critics say USAID is fighting behind the scenes to prevent the reports’ public release.

“At virtually every turn USAID has sought to withhold from the public information concerning the direct assistance programs discussed in SIGAR’s audit report,” SIGAR General Counsel John G. Arlington wrote in a March 26 letter to USAID’s legal branch.

“When SIGAR first requested copies of the ministry assessments at issue here, USAID stamped them ‘Sensitive But Unclassified’ (SBU), with a legend on the front covers stating that they should not be released ‘outside the Executive Branch,’ i.e., should not be released to Congress or the public,” Mr. Arlington wrote in the letter — the contents of which were first revealed by the Project on Government Oversight, an independent watchdog group in Washington.

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