The Money Trail
A year after returning from Iraq, a young veteran takes a second look at rebuilding.
A year after returning from Fallujah, Todd Bowers is energized by the conviction that his six-member team, part of the Marine Corps 4th Civil Affairs Group, managed its reconstruction money better than most. "For every dollar I gave out, the paperwork was insane," says Bowers, 26, describing how a copy of each contract he let went to a comptroller, to his team leader and to the Marine infantry battalion to which his team was attached. Bowers' command estimates the team oversaw about $2 million in contracts.
Bowers' vantage on reconstruction didn't go beyond the officers immediately above him, or much past the contracts he and his team assembled in Fallujah in 2004 and 2005. On his own, Bowers was limited to handling contracts of $5,000 or less. But when records of his efforts and those of other disbursers are loaded into a central database operated by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, a fuller measure of the reconstruction can be taken.
Parts of that bigger picture have emerged, but the IG's progress has been spotty. In February, at the outset of the office's third year of accounting for how the $18.4 billion Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund is spent, Special Inspector General Stuart W. Bowen Jr. told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, "It is difficult for me to assess the current progress of the overall project portfolio, or to identify potential problems with individual projects. . . . difficulties in extracting data from U.S. government agencies in Iraq hinder our responsiveness."
Collecting accurate data was a priority for Bowers and his team. Another was sharp shopping. After the U.S. military's assault on Fallujah in November 2004, Iraqis slowly began returning to the city in mid-December. That was when Bowers and his colleagues encountered Rafeed, an Iraqi engineer who volunteered to organize laborers to work at the team's humanitarian aid site in the northwest part of town. After a background check, Rafeed was hired. But Bowers handled the money. "He would organize the workers, they would work all day long, and at the end of the day we would line them up, and I would pay each person individually," says Bowers. The team would spend three months or more building trust with Iraqis such as Rafeed before cutting them checks for thousands of dollars to build a school or to renovate some other facility. "That was very rare. No one else was doing it that way," says Bowers.
When his team compared its disbursements to those of other teams, including ones operating in less densely populated areas, it found that "people were spending ridiculous amounts of money," Bowers says. The group prepared cost estimates before reviewing bids, which allowed it to bat down high ones. But, says Bowers, "We started to realize that a lot of these guys would go find somebody else to give this bid to. We became known as these guys that would be hard-asses when it came to these contracts."
That distinction was sometimes at odds with the goal of putting Iraqis to work and quickly re-establishing an economy in the shattered city. Bowers says his team leader, a captain, heard from superiors that the group was not disbursing money quickly enough. But the team was reluctant to relax its contracting protocols. Then as now, Bowers worried that money lost to unfamiliar contractors could end up funding the insurgency. "We don't want American taxpayer dollars to buy [rocket-propelled grenades] and AK-47s," he says.
Still, the lethal environment in Iraq can overcome even trusted hires like Rafeed. Last September, after Bowers returned to classes at The George Washington University, he learned that Rafeed and his brother were assassinated by insurgents holding the engineer's daughter for ransom.
In the year following his return from Iraq, Bowers did more recounting than accounting. In August, his homecoming was profiled in Washingtonian magazine. Last fall, he joined Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., at a press conference to pressure the Pentagon into formalizing an equipment reimbursement program. (During a firefight in Fallujah, a nonregulation rifle scope and protective eyewear that Bowers had acquired on his own deflected a sniper's bullet.) And, he went on a college speaking tour with the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, formerly called Operation Truth. Bowers calls himself the tour's "token Republican" because he was a junior staffer to Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., from 2001 until his initial deployment in 2003.
Now Bowers has taken up accounting again. When his commitment to the Marines ended in mid-March, Bowers was hired by the nonprofit watchdog group Project on Government Oversight as a defense investigator. POGO lends material support to the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Follow the Money project, which tracks where taxpayer money for those wars and reconstruction is going. "I think in the position I'm in at POGO now, I can continue to help the guys on the ground," says Bowers, "but maybe with a suit and a tie, walking the halls of Congress." His civil affairs unit returns to Iraq in June.