- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Federal investigators were stymied in two separate probes to uncover corruption involving U.S. aid to Iraq, thanks to an Iraqi amnesty law that allowed the suspects to avoid justice.

The Iraqi suspect in one case was at the center of a bid-rigging scandal tied to more than $750,000 in contracts to supply tents in the country’s Anbar province, according to newly released records.

But after investigators obtained a confession, the suspect “was released due to an Iraqi amnesty program for those committing non-violent offenses prior to February 27, 2008,” according to a 2008 case memo by the office of inspector general for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), an independent federal agency that doles out foreign aid.

In the second case, also in 2008, the inspector general for USAID spent about 18 months looking into accusations from a confidential source that a procurement officer for a USAID contractor received kickbacks for awarding subcontracts to two foreign-owned companies.

The investigative reports were among 29 case summaries recently released by USAID’s inspector general to The Washington Times through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Though investigators uncovered evidence that an Iraqi national had fabricated invoices on the U.S.-taxpayer-funded contract for more than $25,000, the suspect wasn’t arrested.

“Based on the nature of the offense involved in this investigation and consultation with Iraqi judicial and law enforcement authorities, the suspect … falls under the General Amnesty Law,” the USAID inspector general concluded in a case memo.

Dona Dinkler, a spokeswoman for the inspector general’s office, said Tuesday that it’s not a typical outcome for investigations. After an inquiry from The Times last week, she said, officials reviewed their investigative files and “these are the only two cases we could uncover” in which suspects were able to avoid any criminal sanctions because of the Iraqi amnesty law.

Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, said two cases are still too many.

“It’s costly to do these kinds of investigations,” Ms. Paige said. “The agents devote time and resources and at the end of the paper trail, it ends up the person is going to get a pass. It’s a waste of money for the investigators and auditors to spin their wheels to track this money in these cases.”

In documents provided to The Times, names and other identifying information about the suspects were redacted. In a letter accompanying the release of records, the inspector general’s office cited privacy reasons for withholding the names.

The letter stated that “individuals have a privacy interest in not being identified … and we believe that this interest outweighs any public interest in knowing their identities in this situation.”

Officials at the Iraqi Embassy in Washington did not respond to e-mail questions about the amnesty law. A May 2009 article in the Jurist, a legal publication, described the amnesty law as part of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s attempt to draw disaffected Sunnis into the national reconciliation and reconstruction process.

But the law has come under scrutiny as corruption remains a top area of concern in Iraq.

In its most recent quarterly report to Congress, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction cited “the cancer of corruption” as one of the key challenges facing the Iraqi government as the U.S. winds down combat missions.

Iraq’s ‘second insurgency’ — endemic government graft and public sector malfeasance — continues to drain the state of needed resources and capacity,” the July report said.

Iraq has yet to hold a single senior official fully accountable for corruption. This integrity vacuum understandably weakens public trust in the Iraqi government.”

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction noted in past reports to Congress that corruption cases have been abandoned because suspects were covered under the amnesty law.

One of the suspects in a 2008 case investigated by the USAID inspector general had a criminal past but still managed to work on projects involving U.S.-funded contracts, records show. The suspect, who received a $750,000 payment for contracts to provide tents in Iraq, also was arrested and convicted in 2001 for dealing in black-market cigarettes, records show.

The USAID inspector general also investigated the suspect for falsifying signatures of day laborers on time sheets, but authorities said they could not substantiate those accusations.

Once the suspect was released because of amnesty, an agent for the inspector general’s office contacted Iraqi authorities to try to have the person arrested again. But an Iraqi court issued a pardon and the case was closed.

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