Lawmakers urge Obama to oust Afghan reconstruction IG

In a highly unusual move, a bipartisan quartet of lawmakers has called on the White House to fire the inspector general charged with rooting out fraud, waste and abuse of Afghanistan reconstruction funds.

On Thursday, four senators -- Tom Coburn, R-Okla.; Susan Collins, R-Maine; Charles Grassley, R-Iowa; and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.-- wrote to President Obama urging him to remove Arnold Fields as head of the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

The letter claims that Fields' office is a "failing organization" incapable of meeting the minimum standards for performing audits and investigations.

"It has been clear for several months that SIGAR's mission is not being served effectively," the senators wrote. "It is for this reason we have concluded that SIGAR would be better served with new leadership. We urge you to replace Mr. Fields with an individual who will oversee significant organizational change needed within the SIGAR to provide adequate oversight of the billions of dollars of spending on reconstruction in Afghanistan."

Fields' office did not respond to repeated requests for comment on Friday. But the SIGAR website cites several actions the office has taken in recent months to improve operations, including hiring better trained investigators, establishing a quality assurance program and finalizing a risk-based model to guide management decisions.

Federal watchdogs supported the request for Fields' dismissal. "Removing an IG is a serious action that should not be taken lightly," said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. "However, this case warrants it. The importance of effective oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction funds is paramount, and few stakeholders have confidence in Arnold Fields."

The push to remove Fields appears to be prompted, in part, by the office's decision to award a sole-source contract in July to a law firm run by the Defense Department's former inspector general. SIGAR paid Joseph E. Schmitz PLLC $95,000 to independently monitor its operations after it was cited for investigative deficiencies by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency, a group that provides oversight of the IG community.

SIGAR defended the lack of competition by noting Schmitz's firm was the only source capable of performing the work, according to the justification and approval document that is required for sole-source contracts. The document said SIGAR's efforts at market research were limited to a few phone calls to federal and nonfederal experts.

"The decision to pay Mr. Schmitz to assist in correcting SIGAR's own failures raises serious questions regarding Mr. Fields' judgment," the four senators wrote in the Sept. 23 letter.

Schmitz left the Defense IG's office in 2005 shortly after Grassley, then chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, looked into whether he had blocked two criminal investigations. The integrity committee of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency later cleared Schmitz of any wrongdoing.

In an e-mailed statement, Schmitz said the senators' letter "contains materially misleading descriptions of defamatory 'allegations of ethical misconduct' against me while I was serving as inspector general of the Department of Defense, all of which have been thoroughly investigated and cleared by the Integrity Committee of the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency."

A retired Marine Corps major general, Fields assumed the role of chief watchdog of Afghan reconstruction funds in July 2008. 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 to conduct a peer evaluation of the office to identify areas in need of improvement. The group concluded three reviews in August, finding multiple problem's 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.

"The safeguards and management procedures in this organization did not provide reasonable assurance of conforming with professional standards in the conduct of its investigations," the CIGIE review stated.

SIGAR has said the office addressed many of the panel's concerns and planned to resolve outstanding issues by the end of September.

Since its inception, SIGAR, has advanced more than 100 criminal investigations relating to fraud and corruption and produced 22 audits with 67 recommendations for change, Fields said.

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