Senate Democrats to hold hearings on contracting abuses in Iraq

The Senate's Democratic Policy Committee will hold a series of hearings starting Monday to investigate contracting abuse in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., announced on Wednesday.

Dorgan is chairman of the committee, which has held 12 such hearings since December 2003 and is ramping up for more in a renewed push to form a select investigative committee on Iraq and Afghanistan contracting.

A bipartisan select committee with subpoena power is crucial to investigating "the most significant government waste, fraud and abuse in the nation's history," he said. Dorgan cited the Special Committee to Investigate the National Defense Program, chaired by then-Sen. Harry Truman, as an example of what he hopes to accomplish. That committee is credited with saving the government $15 billion between 1941 and 1948 by exposing wasteful and corrupt military contractors.

"Most of our [Senate] committees are not equipped to fully investigate," Dorgan said. "We don't have the investigators and … it's more properly done in a bipartisan select committee."

Dorgan has introduced legislation to create the select committee three times on the Senate floor, but has been unable to gain the 60 votes necessary to pass the proposal.

The policy committee hearings thus far have featured primarily whistleblowers. On April 28, three former contractor employees will testify, including two from KBR Inc., which provides myriad support services to the military. They will detail instances of overcharging, double-billing, fraud and theft by U.S. contractors in Iraq, according to Dorgan.

The committee has struggled to get company executives or agency officials to testify at the almost exclusively Democratic hearings. The committee has extended invitations to the heads of Halliburton as well as to Pentagon officials, but they have "decided not to show up," he said.

Dorgan does not see oversight of in-theater contracting as a partisan issue and has publicly invited Republican senators to participate. But Matt Mackowiak, a spokesman for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., chairwoman of the Republican Policy Committee, said the Democratic Policy Committee has not reached out to her panel on this issue.

"Republicans have focused on Defense contracting reform and transparency, and support scrutiny when it's for a useful purpose," Mackowiak said.

With their hands tied unless a select committee is formed, the Democratic Policy Committee will focus on offering a forum for whistleblowers to expose contracting violations. Monday's witnesses will discuss, among other things, burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dorgan said. Contractors use burn pits to destroy old equipment and keep it off the black market or out of insurgents' hands. The whistleblowers will testify that virtually new equipment, even vehicles, are being burned and that the pits have turned into a source of theft, where insiders can access equipment for illegal sale.

"All you can do is dig and disclose … and keep pushing, because I think this is all an unbelievable scandal," Dorgan said. "The American taxpayers have a right to be pretty disgusted about what's going on."

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