US: Pentagon probes contractor fraud on Kuwait base

Publisher Name: 
USA Today

Camp Arifjan, a sprawling base of warehouses and
prefabricated office buildings in the dusty Kuwaiti desert, is the
center of the Army's financial operation for Iraq. It has handled more
than $4.2 billion in military contracts.




It's also a center for corruption investigations.




U.S. authorities are investigating a web of more than $10 million in
favors, bribes and kickbacks among Army officers, contractors and
subcontractors at Camp Arifjan, court and military records show.




So far, 13 people associated with the Army's contracting operation in
Kuwait have been charged with corruption in federal courts -- the
majority of the 20 corruption cases brought to date involving Army
contracts for Iraq. Eight of the 13 have pleaded guilty. Two enlisted
soldiers at Camp Arifjan were court-martialed for taking bribes.




Six companies accused of corruption in Kuwait also have been punished
administratively by Army contracting officials, records show.




Cash, gifts, parties alleged





Those cases involve allegations of contractors offering shopping bags
and suitcases stuffed with cash, wire transfers of hundreds of
thousands of dollars into offshore accounts, gifts ranging from phone
cards to SUVs, and parties with food, drinks and, in one case, a
prostitute, court records show.




The Pentagon has 90 criminal investigations involving $6 billion worth
of contracts, and a third of those probes have ties to Kuwait, Deputy
Inspector General Thomas Gimble told the House Armed Services
Committee last month.




"How did this culture of corruption come to pass in the office in
Kuwait?" committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., demanded during a
hearing on the issue.




Lt. Gen. Ross Thompson, co-chairman of an Army fraud-fighting task
force, acknowledged problems with oversight, but added: "I do not
think it's a culture. They are, for the most part, isolated
incidents."




Records from the corruption investigations tell a different story.
"I've experienced numerous approaches from the contractor(s)
themselves for bribery," Chief Warrant Officer Peleti "Pete"
Peleti Jr. said in a July 2006 confession.




Peleti told Army Criminal Investigation Command agents that he
accepted cash, souvenirs, meals and the use of an SUV from three
contractors from 2003 to 2005.




He confessed to taking more than $8,000 in Iraqi currency from
Mohammad Shabbir Khan, a former executive with the Saudi Arabian
company Tamimi Global Co., which provided meals to U.S. troops under
an Army subcontract.




Khan hosted gatherings at a "party house" in Kuwait for Army
contracting officers and contractors, Peleti wrote. "I've spent
approximately 10-12 times attending parties with other contractors and
military personnel," he added.




After confessing, Peleti agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the
wider corruption probes and pleaded guilty to one bribery charge for
accepting $50,000 cash from an executive of Gulf Catering Co. seeking
to supply napkins and cutlery to U.S. troops. In July, Peleti filed a
motion to withdraw his plea, arguing that he wasn't guilty of bribery
because he had no power to award the contract.




Khan is serving a 51-month prison term after pleading guilty in a
separate case to paying $133,000 in kickbacks to Stephen Seamans, a
former employee of KBR, which awarded the subcontract to Tamimi.
Khan's guilty plea says the scheme began in October 2002, when he
hosted a birthday party for Seamans and provided him with the services
of a prostitute.




Seamans also pleaded guilty. He was released from prison last month
after serving about eight months of a one-year term.




The biggest bribery case of the Iraq war so far involves Army Maj.
John Cockerham, a former contracting officer at Arifjan, who is
accused of taking $9.6 million in bribes from at least eight companies
seeking contracts to provide bottled water and other
supplies.



Other corruption cases




Those linked to Cockerham include some involved in other cases:




*Maj. Gloria Davis, a fellow contracting officer at Arifjan who worked
on several contracts with Cockerham. Davis killed herself in December,
a day after admitting to Army investigators that she took $225,000 in
bribes from contractor Lee Dynamics International, federal court
records say. Lee Dynamics also hired Davis' son, Damien Thomas, the
company's lawyer says. The Army suspended Lee Dynamics from
contracting in July.




*Diaa Salem, a businessman from Kuwait whom Cockerham named as a
business partner when creating a Texas company in 2004. The Army
barred Salem and his firm, Jasmine International Trading, from getting
contracts for a year in 2006 in a separate case.




In that case, two Army soldiers working at Camp Arifjan's finance
office were court-martialed for taking $7,000 from Salem to process
Jasmine's payments more quickly, according to Army records released to
USA TODAY under the Freedom of Information Act.




Davis' son and daughter are challenging the government's efforts to
seize $177,000 prosecutors say are proceeds from Lee Dynamics bribes.
Their lawyer, Lars Liebeler, declined to comment on Thomas' job.
Liebeler said the siblings do not want to discuss the case.




Howell Riggs, Lee Dynamics' lawyer, said founder George Lee hired
Thomas as a trainee.




"Mr. Lee was motivated by a desire to help a young black man see
a different life than the life of an unemployed minority learning from
the college of street life," Riggs said in an e-mail. "Other
than expressing her distress about her son's situation, Maj. Davis
played no role in LDI's decision" to hire Thomas.




Cockerham, in jail since July, has pleaded not guilty. "We're
going to be fighting the charges," said his attorney, Jimmy
Parks.




In response to the problems at Camp Arifjan, the Army has reorganized
its contracting office in Kuwait, replaced its leaders, added staff
and provided more ethics training, according to Thompson, the
co-chairman of the Army contracting fraud task force.




Thompson told the House panel that officials are examining all of the
more than 18,000 contract actions from Kuwait since October 2002 and
plan to transfer oversight of major contracts to an Army financial
center in Illinois.




The Army also created a contracting corps specially trained for
military operations such as the Iraq war to help prevent future
problems, Thompson said.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering