Watchdog sharply critical of Afghan justice training program

A nonprofit legal training organization contracted to teach Afghans about the rule of law told NBC News on Thursday that it strongly contested a federal investigator's accusation that it was being allowed to spend almost $50 million without any oversight.

In an "alert letter" sent Monday to the State Department, John Sopko, the special inspector general overseeing Afghan reconstruction programs, alleged that the organization is ill-prepared to handle taxpayer money and refuses to provide U.S. investigators with any accounting of how the cash is being spent.

"You can't make this up," Sopko wrote.

The letter says that an audit of legal programs administered by a State Department agency revealed that the $47.8 million Afghanistan justice training program had been awarded to the Rome-based International Development Law Organization without competition and lacking "basic provisions that would allow (the State Department) to ensure proper monitoring and evaluation."

"The irony here is that State violated its own written policy and gave them a huge check to teach the Afghans about the 'rule of law,'" Sopko wrote. "We're going to get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable."

(An earlier version of this story referred to the special inspector general's office as a Defense Department agency. It is an interagency office overseeing Afghanistan operations across the Defense and State departments and the U.S. Agency for International Development. The earlier version also incorrectly referred to Sopko's letter as a "report." It is an alert letter informing the State Department that a formal report would be one step Sopko could take if it fails to address his concerns.)

IDLO isn't a new or little-known organization. Founded in 1983 by international development lawyers in Africa, it has permanent observer status at the United Nations, which lists it as a partner organization. 

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In a statement to NBC News on Thursday, IDLO contended that Sopko's letter was filled with "factual errors and speculative assertions based on incorrect or incomplete information."

"Both IDLO and (the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL) focused on including robust oversight, monitoring, and evaluation provisions during the program design phase into those documents," it said, including requiring "detailed review by INL." 

It said IDLO is required to submit "detailed explanations of proposed budget expenditure" and must submit to independent third-party audits at any time.

A State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf, agreed that IDLO's contract included a "robust monitoring and evaluation plan."

"We would also note that while this program is new, there have been no allegations or evidence of fraud, waste or mismanagement," she said.

IDLO also said Sopko was wrong when he wrote that its budget has been declining even as it has taken on more projects. 

"IDLO's budget has been increasing over the past few years, reflecting continuing confidence and trust in IDLO's work from our donors," it said.

That's true, but only to a point. The organization's 2012 financial report (.pdf) does show that its 2012 budget represented a 15 percent increase over what it had projected in its 2011 budget. But it actually represented a 5 percent decline from the final approved budget for 2011.

And that came after significant cuts in financial, operational and human resources spending, made necessary by shortfalls in 2009 and 2010, "to bring about a balanced budget for 2011," according to the documents.

"These reductions have been significant for the Organization," it said in its 2011 financial report (.pdf).

Jim Miklaszewski and Catherine Chomiak of NBC News contributed to this report.