Afghan watchdog fails to garner congressional support

The watchdog charged with providing oversight of $56 billion in Afghan reconstruction funds failed to garner the political support of Senate lawmakers to remain in his job during a hearing on Thursday.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Scott Brown, R-Mass., raised serious doubts about the competency of Arnold Fields to continue leading the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

"This is no fun for me," said McCaskill, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight. "But, I don't think you are the right person for this job."

In late September, McCaskill, along with Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; wrote to President Obama urging him to remove Fields, citing the organization's lackluster record of performing audits and investigations.

SIGAR has completed 34 audits -- addressing more than $4.4 billion in reconstruction spending -- but only four involved specific contracts, a disparity that Fields pledged to correct.

Fields blamed the slow pace of audits and investigations on a lack of funding more than an absence of leadership. He told the subcommittee that his office was not fully funded until June 2009 -- he was appointed in July 2008 -- and that the quantity and quality of audit reports and investigations have been improving.

The subcommittee also questioned whether SIGAR was providing taxpayers a sound return on their investment. Last year, the office received $46 million in funding but recovered or saved only $8.2 million. Comparatively, the panel found that the U.S. Agency for International Development's inspector general has used a roughly $10 million budget for audits and investigations in Afghanistan to recover or save taxpayers $149 million.

"I just want you to follow the money and where it is going," said Brown, the subcommittee's ranking member.

Speaking in impassioned tones, Fields, a retired Marine Corps major general, noted, "my leadership has been called into doubt" for the first time, bluntly adding, "I wouldn't say it is a pleasure" to testify before the subcommittee.

SIGAR has come under intense scrutiny in recent months after Fields asked the Council on Integrity and Efficiency, a watchdog group for the inspectors general community, to conduct a peer evaluation of his office to identify areas for improvement.

The council concluded three reviews in August, finding multiple problems with SIGAR's performance, including a lack of investigative policies and procedures, a failure to employ and train enough experienced investigators, and the absence of a strategic plan to prioritize its workload.

Jon T. Rymer, inspector general of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and chairman of CIGIE's audit committee, testified that it was "very rare" to find so many problems during a peer review.

CIGIE recommended the Justice Department consider revoking SIGAR's law enforcement powers. Fields said that the office accepted the findings and have made a number of "course corrections."

To independently monitor the implementation of those reforms, Fields issued a sole-source $95,000 two-month contract to Joseph Schmitz, the Defense Department's inspector general from 2002 to 2005.

SIGAR staffers told subcommittee aides earlier this week that there was an ulterior motive to hiring Schmitz. The expectation was that Schmitz would be joined by former FBI director Louis Freeh, who would then lobby Attorney General Eric Holder not to suspend the office's law enforcement authority, according to SIGAR staffers.

Fields argued he was only seeking the best possible expertise and that influencing Holder was not part of the plan. But an incredulous McCaskill asked, "You understand what this looks like, don't you? It looks like you were trying to hire someone to help influence the attorney general of the United States."

If he could do it again, Fields said, "I probably would have made another decision."

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