The State Department's embattled top fraud investigator, who recused himself from probes into Blackwater Worldwide security contractors over conflict of interest charges, has relinquished even more authority but remains at his post, officials said Thursday.
In addition to removing himself from all queries related to Blackwater, Inspector General Howard Krongard has given up his role in looking into corruption allegations involving the construction of the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
The move came at the request of a congressional oversight committee chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., which Krongard testified before a day earlier. During the hearing he learned, apparently for the first time, that his brother is a member of Blackwater's advisory board.
"That was at the request of Congressman Waxman's committee because they are doing their own inquiries into the new embassy compound," McCormack said. "Because of the reporting relationship between the IG and the Congress, of course, Howard honored that request."
Politicized and undermined probes?
Despite the fact that he has now recused himself from the State Department's two main internal investigations in Iraq and has come under heavy pressure to resign, Krongard has not offered to step down and continues as the inspector general, McCormack told reporters.
He did not, however, offer Krongard a ringing endorsement and pointedly refused several times to say if the inspector general still had the confidence of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice or others.
"He has, appropriately, recused himself from these two issues, Blackwater and the new embassy compound," McCormack said. "He is still doing his work as inspector general."
Waxman and some of his fellow Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee have alleged that Krongard has politicized his office and undermined probes that targeted Blackwater or might embarrass Bush administration officials. Those charges led the union that represents U.S. diplomats to call for Krongard to step down.
Krongard, who officials said has not contemplated resigning, vehemently denied the accusations at Wednesday's hearing, maintaining that he has no political ties and is the victim of disgruntled employees who objected to his brusque management style.
'I'm not my brother's keeper'
Testifying under oath, he also denied that his brother, Alvin, had any connection to Blackwater, the private security firm whose guards may face criminal prosecution for a deadly Sept. 16 shooting incident in Baghdad.
But after being confronted with documents showing Alvin Krongard was in fact a member of the company's advisory board, he called his brother during a break in the hearing and returned to make the stunning announcement that he had been wrong and immediately recused himself from all Blackwater-related investigations.
"I'm not my brother's keeper," Krongard told the committee when he was pressed to explain how he could have been unaware of the connection.
The siblings are apparently not close, as Alvin Krongard was widely quoted after the hearing as saying he had informed Howard of his connection to Blackwater but that they rarely speak.
McCormack declined to comment on Krongard's family relationships but acknowledged the dramatic nature of the moment while stressing that Krongard had acted properly.
"As soon as he learned of the potential conflict of interest, or at least the perception of a conflict, he recused himself, as he should have done," McCormack said. "It was the right thing to do."
Blackwater is the subject of several federal investigations related to its work in Iraq, including allegations that some of its employees may have smuggled weapons into the country. Federal investigators also continue to examine a Sept. 16 shooting in Baghdad involving Blackwater guards that killed 17 Iraqis.
Waxman and others have suggested that Alvin Krongard's ties to Blackwater are a main reason Howard Krongard sidelined a probe into the weapons smuggling charges.
Waxman's committee is also looking into claims of fraud and corruption in the construction of the new U.S. embassy in Baghdad, which has been beset by logistical delays and security concerns.
The opening of the more than $600 million facility is already two months behind schedule.