Watchdog: Accountability

Afghan contractor with insurgent ties given contracts, access to US facilities

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Watchdog,Michal Conger,Army,Afghanistan,Inspectors General,Waste and Fraud,al Qaeda,Accountability,Chuck Hagel,War in Afghanistan,Government Contractors

An Afghan contractor with ties to insurgent groups -- one the Army should have cut ties with last year -- was given access to a U.S. facility, according to the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction.

The Zurmat Group is one of 43 contractors in Afghanistan the Army has refused to debar despite SIGAR's recommendations, based on evidence of ties to terror groups like the Haqqani network, the Taliban and al Qaeda. Suspension and debarment prohibit a contractor from receiving U.S. funds or contracts.

The Army refusal is questionable, according to a letter from Special inspector general John F. Sopko to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel released Wednesday, which urged the secretary to take action on the cases.

"Based on the evidence available in these cases, the Army’s position is legally dubious, contrary to good public policy and contrary to our security goals in Afghanistan," Sopko wrote.

The Army argues debarring or suspending the companies using classified information would be a violation of the contractors' due process rights under the Constitution, according to SIGAR. Meanwhile, the contractors continue to receive funds from the Defense and State Departments, putting U.S. troops and money at risk.

The Zurmat Group was hired to work on a justice building in Parwan Province in November 2012. The company has been on the U.S. Commerce Department's "entity list" since April 2012 for its connection to groups that supply and make bombs used against U.S. troops. U.S. Central Command acknowledged its dangerous ties in September 2012, prohibiting it from receiving contracts for projects under CENTCOM's oversight.

But because the Army didn't debar the Zurmat Group, the contractor's employees were given access they shouldn't have had to the coalition-owned justice building.

"If the Zurmat Group and its subsidiaries had been debarred in September 2012, as SIGAR recommended, it is less likely that ZMTL would have gained access to a Coalition-controlled facility just two months later," Sopko wrote.

SIGAR has sought the authority to debar and suspend contractors since November 2011, instead of referring cases to other agencies. SIGAR has referred 358 cases for suspension or debarment, which led to 61 suspensions, 94 debarments and a settlement. So far, although legislation has been introduced at the committee level that would grant such authority, the IG is still waiting.

Sopko has repeatedly highlighted the problem, most recently in SIGAR's Oct. 30 quarterly report to Congress.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., has introduced the Stop Unworthy Spending Act, or SUSPEND Act, which would create a centralized board for suspension and debarment decisions. Agencies with dedicated debarment staff could apply for waivers to retain their debarment authority.

The Project on Government Oversight, a nonprofit watchdog organization that has closely followed SIGAR's difficulties with debarment, said the SUSPEND Act would add transparency and consistency to a flawed debarment process.

Centralizing debarment may not prevent situations like the Zurmat Group's contract, but it could help standardize the process, said POGO investigator Neil Gordon.

"It seems pretty clear that in this instance the fault was with the Army for having too rigorous a standard for pursuing suspension and debarment," Gordon told the Washington Examiner. "The government uses classified information to go after terrorists all the time."

SIGAR plans to resubmit its recommendation that the Army debar the Zurmat Group, Sopko told Hagel, but getting rid of one dangerous contractor won't be sufficient, he added.

"I must reiterate that, until action is taken on all 43 insurgency-related cases SIGAR has referred to the Army for debarment, the safety of our troops could still be at risk and U.S. government funds could be diverted to supporters of the insurgency," he said.

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