Lawmakers challenge Austrian sidearms purchase for Iraq

While some European officials are fuming at U.S. plans to reserve $18.6 billion in Iraq reconstruction contracts for allies who risked lives there, several U.S. lawmakers are upset that the Bush administration is buying European-made handguns to arm fledgling security forces in Iraq.

At least three lawmakers, including House Armed Services Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., have launched separate inquiries into what they believe is a sole-source contract awarded by the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq to Austrian gun manufacturer Glock. In a Dec. 3 letter to Ruben Jeffery, executive director of the CPA's Washington division, Hunter expressed his concern and questioned whether U.S. handgun manufacturers that supply U.S. police and military personnel were considered in the bidding.

"I feel that since the U.S. taxpayer is paying the largest burden for the reconstruction efforts in Iraq, U.S. companies, and the U.S. taxpayers they employ, should benefit from these dollars," wrote Hunter.

Glock, which maintains a North American headquarters in Smyrna, Ga., has manufactured handguns in Austria since the 1980s. The $19 million contract for 50,000 Glock Model 19 sidearms, with an option to purchase an additional 50,000 handguns, was awarded late this summer, several U.S. industry sources told CongressDaily. A company official in Smyrna confirmed that Glocks were selected for Iraqi security forces, but otherwise would not comment. A Glock attorney in Smyrna failed to return repeated telephone inquiries made in recent weeks. Hunter asked in his letter whether the Glock award was sole-sourced or competitively bid, and requested a list of companies that submitted quotes under the CPA's solicitation in the event that multiple sources were considered. He also questioned whether the CPA plans any more weapons purchases in 2004, and asked how such future procurements will be handled. A Pentagon spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Washington was unable to comment on Hunter's letter by presstime. But a committee spokesman said the chairman had yet to receive Jeffery's response.

In a Nov. 25 letter, Rep. Jeb Bradley, R-N.H., expressed similar concerns with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld. Bradley visited Iraq recently as part of a congressional delegation comprised of members of the House Small Business Committee interested in the reconstruction process and the competitive participation of U.S. companies for contracts.

"It would appear that the procurement process was not sufficiently open," Bradley wrote upon his return, adding that a lack of bidders might have artificially inflated the cost of the firearms.

Bradley asserted that SigArms, a Swiss firearms company with a manufacturing facility in his district, was not aware of the CPA's contract solicitation. "A representative of SigArms informed me that the company routinely monitors the the CPA Web site and was still unaware of the pending purchase and bidding procedure," Bradley said. A spokesman said Bradley had not yet received a response from Rumsfeld.

Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., whose district is home to the venerable firearms giant Smith & Wesson, directed his questions to Secretary of State Powell, asking in a Sept. 25 letter "why the order was made to a foreign manufacturer without consideration of any American manufacturers." U.S. industry sources said Rep. Richard Neal, D-Mass., has received complaints about the Glock purchases from Smith & Wesson, which runs a law enforcement training academy in his district. Neal's office was unable to comment by presstime. In addition, aides to House Small Business Chairman Don Manzullo, R-Illinois, who strongly favors limiting Iraq reconstruction contracts to U.S. firms, have been aware of the firearms deal for several weeks. Manzullo recently sought an explanation for the Pentagon's decision to outfit Iraqi police with Russian-made AK-47 automatic rifles and is likely to broaden his inquiry to include the Glock handguns.

Firearms companies with U.S. factories have been frustrated in their attempts to learn details from the CPA about the Glock contract, according to industry sources. Some congressional aides said they understood the CPA may have considered as many as eight companies for the handgun contract, but that U.S. suppliers apparently were either passed over or absent entirely from the solicitation process. Bob Scott, Smith & Wesson's president and board chairman, lamented the contract award and the the CPA's failure to respond to his company's interest in the solicitation.

"As a U.S. taxpayer and a U.S. manufacturer, I am greatly offended that my tax dollars are being used to buy foreign weapons for the Iraqis when there were U.S. companies that could have supplied that product," Scott told CongressDaily last week week.

But other industry sources suggested that the CPA may not have purchased the weapons directly from Glock, but through a U.S. middleman named Doug Kiesler, a firearms wholesaler based in Jeffersonville, Ind. Kiesler did not return telephone inquiries, and Mark Barnes, a Washington-based firearms lobbyist who provides regulatory counsel to Kiesler's police supply company, said he could not confirm Kiesler's involvement with the solicitation. He referred media questions to the CPA, but acknowledged that the contract was awarded competitively to an U.S. firm.

"An American company was required to provide goods and services, and an American company did," Barnes said. "It was appropriately awarded and appropriately filled."

In addition to the weapons contract, the CPA allegedly awarded a separate contract for 50,000 holsters designed for Glock handguns, according to U.S. industry sources. Tom Marx, law enforcement marketing manager at Uncle Mike's Holsters in Oregon City, Ore., confirmed that his company was involved with the contract, but said the award was actually handled by a U.S. wholesaler, and that the wholesaler was likely Kiesler.

Congressional aides familiar with the issue said the efforts to contact the CPA regarding the contract had proved difficult. One aide said the CPA's response to inquiries regarding the contract revealed that Iraqi funds, rather than U.S.-appropriated tax dollars, may have been used to pay for the handgun contract. Others observed that the CPA is under significant pressure to hastily equip new Iraqi military and police forces, a factor that could preclude its ability to rely solely on competitive procurement practices.

Nonetheless, these aides are still hoping to learn more about how Glock ended up with the CPA award, and are anxious to learn more about Kiesler's role in the deal. Earlier this week the CPA posted on its Web site a Dec. 5 decree from the Defense Department that some countries would be excluded from bidding on prime contracts in Iraq. Included was a list of countries deemed eligible to bid on the $18.6 billion in U.S-funded prime contracts for reconstruction projects in Iraq. Austria was not included on the list.

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