Image: Iraqi rice imports
Tony Castaneda  /  AP file
Bags of rice purchased from the United States are moved by Iraqi workers at the southern Iraq seaport terminal at Um Qasr on July 9, 2005.
updated 6/12/2008 8:37:19 PM ET 2008-06-13T00:37:19

Double-billing. Bribes. Kickbacks. Military contracts are big targets for serious crimes — and there aren't nearly enough investigators to catch them all.

The Army's contracting budget has exploded since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began — from $46 billion in 2002 to $112 billion in 2007. Yet the number of people who hunt down crooked companies and corrupt officials has stayed about the same, according to Associated Press interviews and research.

Army investigation chiefs told the AP they need a dramatic increase in agents to fight contract fraud.

In combat zones, deals can be made quickly, often with foreign companies in countries where bribes are a routine part of doing business. Yet to monitor those billions in contracts, just under 100 civilian agents are assigned to the Army Criminal Investigation Command's procurement fraud office.

Even with more fraud police, there would be no guarantees. Flaws in how the Army awards and manages contracts, especially overseas, also need repairs to curb criminal activity.

"It's sort of like an assembly line for cars and having more checkers at the end of the line when the people aren't building the cars right," said Jacques Gansler, a military acquisition expert. "What we really need to eliminate the abuse is people doing it right in the first place."

95 ongoing investigations
Until that happens, the Army's procurement fraud team faces an increasingly complex workload that requires frequent overseas travel and specialized training to spot foul play in mountains of arcane paperwork.

"There's obviously more going on out there today than there was five years ago, but I have the same number of people," said Wes Kilgore, director of the command's Major Procurement Fraud Unit.

There are 95 ongoing investigations into Army contract irregularities in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. And 500 more fraud cases have been launched in the United States, but most of those are not related to wartime contracts.

Under a proposal now being reviewed by senior Army officials at the Pentagon, Kilgore's staff would increase by 143 agents and 30 support personnel between 2010 and 2015. Army leaders approved a request last year to add 36 employees, including 23 agents. Those extra hands are still being hired or trained, however.

Overall, the 166 new agents would cost about $21.5 million a year.

If the latest request is approved, Kilgore's unit would eventually have 260 agents to uncover and prevent contract fraud.

"We're concerned, and that's why we've pushed so hard on getting these numbers ramped up rather than sitting on our hands," said Daniel Quinn, the command's chief of staff. "It's the same reason why police departments will put cops out on a beat or patrol cars flooding an area. If you have a higher chance of getting caught, you're not going to be out there committing a crime."

Criminal Investigation Command officials rarely grant interviews. The decision to speak with a reporter reflects how critical the new hires are to them.

Expectation of bribes
It's not just the enormous flow of wartime money, it's the speed with which contracts are awarded that lures the cheaters. Location is key, too. In Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait, supplies such as bottled water, shipping containers, food and transportation might be needed quickly from local vendors. If only a few suppliers can fill the order, the choices may be limited. But the potential for a crooked deal is not.

Army Col. Joe Ethridge, commander of the 701st Military Police Group, likens the situation to buying a plane ticket for travel to a remote location the day before a holiday weekend.

"The vendors know going in (the customer is) going to want this really fast and there's not going to be a lot of competition," said Ethridge, whose military police group includes Kilgore's procurement fraud unit.

Another pitfall of overseas contracting — known in military circles as contingency or expeditionary contracting — is the expectation of bribes. In the Middle East and other parts of the world, they're often assumed to be part of the deal.

"The threat and the opportunity of money passing hands is always there," Ethridge said. "So it's a pretty tough environment to do contracting in, and it's a pretty tough environment to do oversight."

Ethridge and other command officials said they didn't anticipate how reliant the Army would be on contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. Private companies get paid to provide base security, drive trucks, operate warehouses and serve meals. Contracts for these and other services can be difficult to manage.

"This is a change in how we operate and creates threats that we're going to have to address," Ethridge said.

The investigation command has procurement fraud offices in Iraq, Kuwait and Afghanistan. The Iraq office opened in December 2005, two years after the U.S.-led invasion, and the others followed.

In retrospect, the command should have dispatched its fraud agents more quickly, says Quinn, the command's chief of staff.

"They (didn't) have to be with the 1st Armored Division moving up the highway," he said. "But we probably should have sent our fraud guys in there early on."

Big returns
The concern, and need for more people, is shared by other oversight organizations. In a March 31 report to Congress, the office of the Pentagon inspector general said its ability to adequately audit and investigate military activities and budgets has become strained because staffing levels haven't increased.

The gap, the report said, means a greater chance for fraud, waste and abuse. The Pentagon inspector general and the Army criminal investigation command are separate organizations, although their agents often work together.

The March report was made public last month by the Project on Government Oversight, a public interest group in Washington.

Each new agent costs about $130,000 a year in salary, benefits, training, and equipment.

Army investigation command officials say the investment pays big returns. With fewer than 100 agents, the procurement fraud unit now generates about $130 million a year in recoveries, about $10 million more than the command's annual operating budget.

The pitch for more investigators has to be weighed against an ongoing effort to expand and improve the Army's contracting corps. In October, an independent panel sharply criticized the Army's ability to award and manage contracts, especially for overseas combat forces.

That panel, chaired by Gansler, a former Pentagon acquisition chief, said the Army's contracting employees were "understaffed, overworked, undertrained, undersupported and, most important, undervalued."

The criticisms led the Army to order a major overhaul of the way it buys gear and supplies for the troops. Chief among the moves is the formation of a new contracting command to better manage military purchasing and the addition of 1,400 contracting personnel.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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