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US military contracts: corruption, suicides, and they've only tracked $6 billion

By Paul Wallis     Sep 24, 2007 in Crime
It would be reasonable to say that few things have left the public as utterly infuriated as the Iraq contracts scandals. Enron and World Com might rate a mention, but since 1776 only Benedict Arnold would stick in the craw quite as much.
People weren’t dying for Enron.
Civilian contractors have been thoroughly despised and reviled for their abuse of public trust, public money, human suffering, and soldiers' lives. Maybe there never will be a word for them. But now the military itself is being accused of going for a dogfaced dogpaddle in the public's liquid assets.
The New York Times has compiled three pages of a story detailing the background of charges against a Major Cockerham, accused of taking bribes. Major Cockerham was based in Kuwait, working for the Army Contracting Agency. The workload was high, and the NYT adds one particularly revealing fact:
Oversight was virtually nonexistent by design. There were no auditors at Camp Arifjan, and contracts worth more than $500,000 were the only ones requiring review in Washington. Most contracts were written for about $100,000. It was also common for contracting officers to use “blanket purchase agreements,” allowing them to open a line of credit with a company with little more than a promissory note, much like a customer at a small-town grocery store.
That may be expedient, but any accountant or auditor would call it a recipe for fraud. It is common for government purchasing guidelines to have arbitrary limits placed on them in dollar values. In fact in most government agencies it’s standard practice. But without active oversight, you’d have to wonder who was doing the books.
The Army, in fairness, does have a three part process for the preferred method of handling contracts, three different people handling it: One officer seeking bids for contracts, one awarding the contract, and another overseeing delivery. In the present situation, however, volumes apparently swamped the contracts staff. Cockerham was required to do all three processes.
The result was a “web of deceit”, according to the Army, which is obviously a lot less than happy about what it's finding. Commanding officers would inflate their units’ requirements. Companies paid bribes to get contracts. In military circles neither of these practices is exactly unknown. They’ve been going on since hieroglyphs were able to write about them, anyway. They're also the curse of every army in history.
Ten million dollars in bribes, as alleged in Cockerham's case, is a lot of free enterprise. According to the NYT, there were allegedly shopping bags full of cash scurrying around the Middle East. There were no auditors at the camp, but there are Army Auditors. There are also civil auditors for the contractors, or supposed to be. Few experts would believe that any documented process would be that immune to scrutiny that anyone could get away with relatively clumsy bribe/pay/contract tricks.
Cockerham’s solicitor, in fact, claims that he didn’t have the authority to do what he’s accused of doing. That’s an interesting argument, because somebody almost certainly did, and those contracts were in fact awarded. Someone must have signed something, where contracts are involved.
One thing not mentioned: An officer with the rank of major is at middle management level. There’s a lot of stars and eagles above that rank, and they’re supposed to be doing the overwatch, however difficult, at whatever degree of remove. Things don't "just happen". This reminds me of Abu Ghraib, where nobody between the ranks of Staff Sergeant and Brigadier General claimed to have had any knowledge of what was going on. Not that anyone vaguely aware of military processes ever actually believed that. It’s almost impossible.
Maybe there’s a good reason why there’s no description of how the bribery was discovered, beyond "investigation". Two of Major Cockenham's colleagues committed suicide after learning of bribery charges being prepared against them. Must be some gossip column they have over there. Certainly wouldn't convince the investigators they were on the wrong track. One of the suicides seems to have thought a $225,000 bribe worth killing herself over. You'd have to wonder.
Perhaps there’s a reason why no higher ranks are implicated. The fact remains that an Army major allegedly didn’t have to do much more than a few clicks on a computer to become a temporary multi millionaire.
The Pentagon is currently investigating $6 billion worth of military contracts. Current stats are 29 people charged, civilians and soldiers, and 75 other criminal investigations in process. $6 billion is a baby’s tear in an ocean, compared to the amounts spent in the various military theatres of operation.
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