The War Profiteers - War Crimes, Kidnappings & Torture
September 9th, 2009 - Feds Scour Bank Records of Retired Army Colonel
By Richard Lardner
September 9, 2009
Washington - Federal investigators are searching for suspicious transactions in the personal bank records of a retired Army colonel who ran the contracting office in Baghdad during the early stages of Iraq's $125 billion reconstruction.
The focus on Anthony B. Bell opens a window into the scope of a long-running inquiry of fraud and corruption that's gathering steam even as U.S. forces are beginning to leave the country.
While contracting procedures and oversight in Iraq have improved dramatically in recent years, that hasn't slowed investigators trying to piece together the scale of corruption that undermined the largest nation-building effort in U.S. history.
Bell is suspected by investigators of being a key figure in a loosely connected network of U.S. officials who allegedly steered contracts to companies that paid them millions of dollars in return.
According to federal court records, the special inspector general's office was told by an anonymous source in 2004 that Bell had allegedly accepted kickbacks on reconstruction contracts. The records do not specify the contracts or give the amounts of the payments.
In a telephone interview with The Associated Press, Bell said he has no problem with the investigators looking through his records. "I will gladly go to court with them anytime they want to bring me to court," he said.
As chief of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority's contracting office from June 2003 to March 2004, Bell managed a critical arm of the U.S. presence in Iraq. The office awarded scores of contracts quickly to get the country back on its feet. At the time, there was almost no oversight on how huge sums of cash were being spent, according to the Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.
That office, known as SIGIR, is involved in the current investigation along with the Justice Department, the Army Criminal Investigation Command and the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
So far, there have been 46 convictions, including 16 involving military personnel, for criminal misconduct stemming from Iraq's rebuilding, which has been aided by $50 billion in U.S. tax dollars.
A spokesman for the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction declined to comment because the investigation is still open.
In late June, a U.S. magistrate cleared the way for investigators to examine Bell's financial records. Bell had initially resisted a subpoena for his records because the document had the incorrect account number and home address.
Bell is also alleged to have received a multimillion-dollar payment from John Cockerham, an Army contracting officer who was stationed in Kuwait and other overseas locations. Cockerham hatched a bribery scheme that prosecutors say netted him $9.5 million that was stashed in bank accounts and safe deposit boxes.
Cockerham was indicted in August 2007 and pleaded guilty less than a year later to bribery, conspiracy and money laundering charges. He has not yet been sentenced.
The New York Times reported in February that Bell's name appeared in a private notebook kept by Cockerham.
In the interview with the AP, Bell denied accepting any bribes or payoffs from Cockerham. He did, however, offer a possible explanation for why his name might appear in Cockerham's notebook: After leaving Iraq in 2004, Bell took over an Army contracting office at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. In December 2005, following a long tour in Kuwait, Cockerham was assigned to Bell's office. Bell said he contacted Cockerham and Cockerham's former supervisors before he arrived to find out more about him just as anyone would do with a new employee.
Calls to Cockerham's attorney were not returned.
Federal agents have also examined the financial records of Ronald W. Hirtle, an Air Force lieutenant colonel who was a contracting officer in the Baghdad office from February through June 2004. Hirtle's tenure briefly overlapped with Bell's.
In an interview, Hirtle said the agents found nothing improper. Hirtle also said the investigators urged him to take a lie-detector test. According to Hirtle, he took it and passed.
No charges have been filed against Hirtle, who retired from the military in July after a 20-year career. He denied any wrongdoing and said he didn't witness any improper behavior while in Iraq.
Hirtle, an Air Force major when he was sent to Baghdad, said he spoke to Bell only a handful of times while he was stationed there. His entanglement in the investigation appears to be connected to an $8.2 million warehouse construction contract he signed in May 2004 with a company in Kuwait called American Logistics Services.
The company, which later become Lee Dynamics International, paid tens of thousands of dollars in bribes to U.S. contracting officials in order to win work, according to documents filed in federal court.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press.