Afghan reconstruction watchdog resigns

The embattled inspector general charged with overseeing $56 billion in Afghan reconstruction funds submitted his resignation to President Obama on Monday night, following months of intense criticism from Senate lawmakers regarding his organization's lackluster record of performing audits and investigations.

Retired Maj. Gen. Arnold Fields announced he would step down on Feb. 4 as the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction after nearly three years on the job.

"At this time, having had this opportunity to contribute to the U.S. mission to Afghanistan, I depart confident in the knowledge that SIGAR is positioned to provide essential support to the president's strategy," Fields said in a statement.

An administration official familiar with SIGAR operations said Fields stepped down voluntarily and President Obama has yet to formally accept the resignation, although that step is considered a formality.

"The president had confidence in Gen. Fields and still has confidence in Gen. Fields," the official told Government Executive.

For several months, a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has lobbied the White House to remove Fields, citing a number of management mistakes, including the office's decision to award a sole-source contract to a law firm run by the Defense Department's former inspector general. In their most recent letter, McCaskill and Republican Sens. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, Susan Collins of Maine, and Charles Grassley of Iowa called SIGAR a "failing organization."

But the administration source said political pressure played no role in the decision. "The president was not going to be pressured into removing Gen. Fields," the official said.

Nonetheless, McCaskill spokeswoman Maria Speiser said she believed the senator "was very influential" in the personnel change.

"With billions of dollars being spent in Afghanistan, our country must have top notch leadership at the agency responsible for rooting out the waste and fraud that can jeopardize our efforts," McCaskill said on Monday. "Mr. Fields simply was not the right person for this very difficult job. I hope that his departure will allow the agency to turn over a new leaf and finally begin to do the important contracting oversight work we so desperately need."

No immediate successor for the position, which requires Senate confirmation, was announced. Herbert Richardson, who was named the offices' deputy inspector general two months ago, is expected to fill in as the interim SIGAR until a new nominee is announced. Richardson spent the past 12 years as the deputy inspector general at the Energy Department.

On Jan. 4, Fields announced he was taking SIGAR in a more aggressive direction and that he had removed two of his top deputies, John Brummet, assistant inspector general for audits, and Raymond DiNunzio, assistant inspector general for investigations.

At the time, Fields said he would not resign, although it is not clear what might have changed during the past week. A spokeswoman for the office did not respond to requests for comment. It is also unclear whether Brummet and DiNunzio will stay on in their roles.

Fields was appointed in June 2008 as the first inspector general focused specifically on Afghan reconstruction -- a position modeled after the oversight function created years earlier in Iraq.

But the office was immediately saddled with a host of problems, including a lack of funding and personnel, which hampered the quality and quantity of audit reports and investigations. The office was not fully funded until June 2009.

Congress first began raising questions about SIGAR's performance in March 2009, when McCaskill, Coburn and Collins wrote to Obama about the IG's failure to hire enough staff to perform its mission. Nine months later, the lawmakers sent another letter, questioning the office's ability to perform aggressive and independent oversight.

The criticism prompted Fields to ask 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 group concluded three reviews in August, finding multiple problems with SIGAR's performance.

The report cited 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. The group recommended the Justice Department consider revoking SIGAR's law enforcement authority.

Fields said the office accepted the findings and implemented a number of "course corrections." To independently monitor those reforms, Fields issued a sole-source $95,000 two-month contract to Joseph Schmitz, the Pentagon's inspector general from 2002 to 2005.

The contract came under fire at a November hearing of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, in which lawmakers questioned whether 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, SIGAR staffers told McCaskill aides.

"You understand what this looks like, don't you?" McCaskill told Fields during the hearing. "It looks like you were trying to hire someone to help influence the attorney general of the United States."

Despite the scrutiny, the White House on Monday praised Fields' performance and said SIGAR produced several critical reports that have improved reconstruction efforts. "Gen. Fields' hard work and steadfast determination have established SIGAR as a critical oversight agency," the White House said in a statement.

Critics, though, said that the change was needed. "It has been clear for many months that this important mission is not being served effectively," Collins said. "Today's news is the first step to putting the oversight of our functions in Afghanistan on the correct path. It is now critical that the administration appoint a leader who will provide aggressive and thorough oversight of the billions of dollars spent on reconstruction in Afghanistan."

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