White House Struggles To Fill Key Watchdog Position To Oversee Afghanistan Reconstruction

Key Afghanistan Reconstruction Watchdog Spot Still Vacant

WASHINGTON -- As the Obama administration begins to draw down U.S. troops from Afghanistan and the war effort undergoes significant transition, the office in charge of ferreting out waste, fraud and abuse in reconstruction projects remains without a permanent head.

Last week, Herb Richardson, the acting Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), announced he would be stepping down after only six months on the job, leaving the agency without a head for the second time this year.

Richardson was called to step in after the last inspector general, Arnold Fields, resigned in January after a troubled, much-criticized tenure. Richardson's short time as acting head was garnering positive reviews, and many observers were hoping Obama would keep him on permanently.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who was one of Fields' most vocal critics, said Richardson had "made great progress in a short amount of time."

"The timing couldn't be worse," said a senior Democratic Hill aide. "When we're spending $325 million per day in Afghanistan, now is hardly the time to loosen the strings of accountability tied to each hard-earned American taxpayer dollar. For Herb Richardson to exit so soon after the Congress-demanded departure of Arnie Fields shows something is not merely amiss with management, but that dysfunction runs deep in the Defense Department."

Last month, Richardson's office released a blistering audit that concluded that the $70 billion in U.S. funds sent to Afghanistan for security and development assistance are vulnerable to "fraud or diversion to insurgents."

Steve Trent, the number two at the agency, will be stepping in as acting chief. Trent previously worked in the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction and the Department of Homeland Security.

In a statement to The Huffington Post, Richardson stressed that the work would not falter as the administration searches for a permanent chief, saying the office "is on the right track."

"I am confident that the leadership team I've put in place over the last six months will continue to get strong results," Richardson said. "Its efforts are critical to ensuring that taxpayer funds are protected during these challenging economic times."

In a farewell letter to Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.) sent on Wednesday, Richardson also emphasized this point and the turnaround at the agency. The two had met a few weeks ago.

"SIGAR's Investigative Directorate has made tremendous progress and is now concentrating on major contract fraud and corruption cases where we can provide the greatest return for the U.S. taxpayer," he wrote. "As a result, SIGAR's Investigations Directorate has increased its monetary results from $7 million in November 2010 to nearly $50 million in July 2011."

But Jake Wiens, an investigator with the nonpartisan watchdog group Project on Government Oversight, warned that without a permanent head, the office is left with a significant amount of uncertainty.

"They still have auditors, they still have investigators, so they're still going to be doing work. It's more about leadership and having a good, solid, strategic plan," he said. "Right now, in such a position of uncertainty, it's tougher to make those sort of long-term decisions that are necessary for good, serious oversight. These aren't problems that can just be fixed in two-three months, or something like that. You really have to be looking long-term, and for that to be the case, you really need a permanent inspector general in there who has been through the nomination process and people really trust."

Stuart Bowen, who has been highly praised for his work rooting out corruption in the Iraq reconstruction effort at the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, said the Afghanistan reconstruction watchdog has faced an uphill climb since its founding.

"I think the challenge on the SIGAR side of the house has been first, they were underfunded at the beginning of their organization. So that made the going very tough at the outset," he said. "Second, they weren't authorized or created until seven years into the Afghan program. So a significant amount of waste, fraud and abuse had occurred, and it was difficult to unpack that so late in the process."

He also stressed the difficulty in finding auditors and investigators who are willing to work in war zones.

"I've been fortunate to have a very strong team that's been committed to the mission for seven years, and we've produced some good results in that time -- over a $1 billion in benefits to our audits, and 55 convictions from our investigations, to date. But it took a lot of work at the outset for me to get this investigation up and running from scratch," he added.

It's unclear where the Obama administration is in the process of finding a replacement. According to the National Journal, Richardson was reportedly "the only candidate under serious White House consideration, which means the administration will now need to scramble to find his replacement." The White House did not return a request for comment.

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