Friday, August 01, 2008

Debra Harrison pleads guilty

Before I went to Iraq I never knew anyone who had been indicted in federal court, much less plead guilty. Debra Harrison, a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve, 50 years old and a resident of Trenton, New Jersey, plead guilty this week to "wire fraud in connection with a scheme to defraud the Coalition Provisional Authority - South Central Region (CPA-SC) in Al-Hillah, Iraq." She will be sentenced in November and faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

Not only do I know Debra Harrison but she worked for me during the five months that we were at the Coalition Provisional Authority South Central Office in Al-Hilla, Iraq. I was her direct supervisor. I wrote about this before in February 2007 when Debra was indicted ( see "A federal indictment hits home" and "Robert Stein goes to jail" in a previous post the same month). How very sad.

The really sad part about it was that she wasn't the only one. Fellow Army Reservists (although not from my unit) Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Hopfengardner, Lieutenant Colonel Bruce Wheeler and Colonel Curt Whiteford were also indicted. Hopfengardner was sentenced to 21 months in prison in June 2007. Whiteford and Wheeler stand trial this September.

Curt Whiteford was the Chief of Staff to the Regional Coordinator, a Department of State Civilian named Mike Gfellor. Mike was a good man and a hard worker and I am sure that he is extremely disappointed that so many people under his authority turned out to be crooks. Mike spoke fluent Arabic and was instrumental in implementing a tribal policy four years before the U.S. Army figured out that this might be the best way to control the populace. When I last checked Mike was holding a senior position at the U.S. Embassy in Saudi Arabia. I would sure love to have another conversation with him.

I do not want to speak ill of Curt Whiteford because he has not been convicted of any crime. Nevertheless, even if he is not found guilty of the crimes to which he has been accused he is guilty of negligence in allowing so much criminal behavior on his watch. I liked Curt. He is a Mormon from Utah with a large family (the picture was on his desk in Hilla). During the five months that I spent in Hillah I met with him almost every day. When I left Iraq I thought Curt had done a good job in a difficult situation. And now this.

Bruce Hopfengardner and Mike Wheeler were a different story. When I first arrived at the CPA headquarters I had a Civil Affairs Team of five persons: (then) Major Debra Harrison, Lieutenant Alicia Galvany, Lieutenant Tamara Montgomery and Specialist (later Sergeant) Mike Green. Not much of an Army, but it was all I had. At first, Curt Whiteford assigned Hopfengardner to work for me. This lasted maybe two weeks and then Curt informed me that Bruce would be doing "special projects" for him relating to the Hilla police academy.

Then Mike Wheeler arrived under what I would consider suspicious circumstances. His civil affairs battalion was reassigned from Hilla to Al Anbar province to support the 82nd Airborne Division. Mike arranged with his battalion commander to be left behind at the CPA office in Hilla.

When Mike arrived Curt assigned him to work with me. After a few weeks, Curt told me that Mike was now working for Bruce on "special projects."

I didn't take offense at any of this. In fact, I was so damn glad to be sleeping alone in a room on a bed with a flush toilet that I said nary a word. I was quick to note, however, that Bruce and Mike left shortly after I gave them a speech on my expectations of their performance. If they were working for me then I was to write their officer efficiency report (which, for these two characters, would have been irrelevant anyhow). My main expectation of them was to supervise the other three officers and Specialist Green so that I wouldn't have to bother with it. I was a Colonel and I used my rank to delegate the more tiresome aspects of my wartime duties. When Bruce and Mike left I pushed the supervision task down to Debra and she did a good job of it.

Given the facts as stated above I don't have to stretch my imagination very far to imagine why these two officers left my supervision or how they did it. I am sure that they pleaded their case with Whiteford and he felt their pain. Later on I saw them both hanging out together like two soul mates, dressed like Delta Force operators, loaded down with grenades, a rifle, a pistol and plenty of ammunition for both weapons. The wanted to play Army in the war without having to worry about supervising three female officers and Specialist Green.

Obviously, I was unaware of any criminal wrongdoing during the time that I served with CPA in Hilla. Colonel Andy Fishman, from my unit, and Colonel Bede Strong, of Her Majesty's Royal Tank Regiment, were there with me at the same time and they didn't see any of this either. I saved all my emails from the time and after the indictments came out I reviewed them for possible clues. I found one that gives a hint of trouble, but I saw it just two weeks before I left, and Curt Whiteford reassures Mr. Gefflor that he's "all over this." For the record, here is the email.

At the bottom of the thread Peter Wilkinson, an Australian Air Force Colonel who was supervising the contract spending, receives an email from Major Robert Shelton, a contracting officer at Hilla. Maj Shelton raises a concern about Mr Bloom (a civilian, convicted conspirator, and source of all the dirty money) and how he seems to be getting an inordinate number of contracts. In the next part of the thread, Colonel Wilkinson raises his concerns to Curt and Mr Gefellor. The beginning of the thread, starting with "Boss" is Curt Whiteford reassuring Mr. Gfellor that he has it all under control. The story in a nutshell.

When the federal prosecutor called me earlier this year to discuss the case I passed this email to her, although I was sure she already it. Here is the text of the email:

[From Curt Whiteford (I was copied on this email)]


We are all over this. I met with Eric yesterday regarding this specific topic and will meet with the primary players after tonight’s staff meeting. With minimal effort, we should make short work of the ratification/paperwork for the subject projects. If you wish, I will get you a listing from Peter of all the projects currently open.


Colonel Curtis G. Whiteford
Deputy Regional Coordinator/Chief of Staff
CPA South Central Region

-----Original Message-----

From: []

Sent: Saturday, February 21, 2004 4:14 PM

To: Wilkinson, Peter (AUS); Whiteford, Curt (USA)

Cc: Shelton, Robert (USA)

Subject: Laying Down the Law on Unauthorized Commitments

Peter and Curt,

I agree fully with your points. This dangerous situation must be corrected immediately.

For the record, while I appreciate Phil Blum's work, that does not mean I wish to exempt him from our rules. I personally have never ordered him to do any work without it being properly bid. I would be happy to see him bid on future projects, such as the new building at Hilla University and the Karbala' Library, but I have not and will not grant him a contract without proper competition of the job. I do not want to play favorites.

I have also repeatedly told all of our colleagues in the West Wing that all contracts must be properly bid. I am astonished to learn that over 20 (!) requests for work have been made to Mr. Blum, without proper procedures being followed. This needs to stop, as you said.

Therefore, I ask that Curt please instruct all of our staff to cease and desist forthwith from these sloppy practices. Every major project must be properly bid. We must follow all the relevant regulations strictly. If one or more staff members cannot operate with that elementary discipline, then I will fire them.

I also ask that you and your staff refuse to pay out any unauthorized expenses.

Finally, please keep me fully informed of infractions, including the names of the malefactors.

Thanks, MG [Mike Gfellor].

"Wilkinson, Peter (AUS)" wrote:

We have a serious problem looming on the near horizon as explained in the email below. The number of ratifications required from unauthorised commitments is now over 20 projects that we know of, almost all of them involving Phil Bloom. Phil, however, is not the problem. We all know he does good quality, timely work albeit for a premium price.

The problem is CPA personnel telling Phil to do work without the authority to do so. We have spoken about this before but the problem continues. Bob Shelton is rightfully concerned that the effort needed to correct all of these unauthorised commitments actually jeopardises our ability to spend CPA-SC's current funding allocation.

With the $41m we have spent in the past, I deliberately left the contracting folks at the end of the whole process so that they could concentrate on writing the enormous number of contracts required. They achieved this with a minimum of fuss and a great deal of flexibility. However, the large scale projects we have been undertaking have been going off the rails from a contracting perspective which is one sure way of attracting unwanted attention from Baghdad auditors and others who may not want our programs to succeed.

We have proudly stated to Bremer in the past that we like the CPA rules and we can work easily within those rules. Well, we're breaking those rules now.

I can not stress enough that Bob Shelton and Eric are totally on board with the CPA-SC programme. Indeed they deserve a substantial amount of the credit for our success in achieving spending targets. I will continue to work with the West Wing group to bring them around and would appreciate it if you could impress the thrust of this email upon them when the pester you!

Peter Wilkinson
Group Captain
Director of Operations
Coalition Provisional Authority - South Central
Unclass: +1-703-343-9624
Pager: Pager # is 8816-314-72349

-----Original Message-----

From: Shelton,Robert (USA)

Sent: Saturday, February 21, 2004 11:17 AM

To: Wilkinson, Peter (AUS)Subject: Program Plans

Eric [a fellow contracting officer with Bob Shelton - I cannot remember Eric's last name] and I met with Phil Bloom and Fadi yesterday. Eric also met with Fern [Holland, a lawyer working for CPA who was killed in an Iraqi ambush a few weeks later, along with her interpretor, Salwa Oumashi, and Bob Zangas] just before her departure. On the positive side we now have a better picture of what is going on in the region regarding program plans (or lack of). I believe we have a mutual understanding with Phil that he is to not proceed with any work without a signed contract by Eric or myself. He understands that Mr. G or any of the program managers cannot obligate the CPA-SC. The downside is that there appears to be more unauthorized work performed by Phil and others that was directed by Mr. G, LTC Hopfengardner, Fadi, and Fern. Phil agreed to list out every job he is working. It’s unfortunate that we cannot get this information from our own people. Hopefully we can sort through the current mess and move on.

We have a potential problem in that Mr. G wants the dormitory [at the Religious University in Al Hilla} done by 30 May. I am also hearing from our folks that he wants Phil to do the job. That’s fine, but Phil will have to compete just like everyone else. Eric and I will seek sources for this project. If this project goes above $500K then we need to get Jesse Pruitt involved and get the PRB [project document] approved. We have a good working relationship with him which should help expedite the approval. Unfortunately we don’t have a SOW [Statement of Work], drawings, cost estimate or any other specifications. The method that was discussed behind closed doors to phase this project is unacceptable. Had Eric and myself been consulted earlier in the process the potential for success would have been greater. Part of my concern is that Mr. G wants a multi-million dollar facility designed and built within the next 90 days. According to Phil, he can’t even meet that timeframe without using pre-fabricated buildings.

The region currently has approx. 20 known unauthorized commitments that need to be ratified. I’ll have a better picture of all of the UAs when Phil provides me his list of jobs and who directed the work. Eric and I have reached a saturation point where we spend too much time cleaning up messes caused by several CPA-SC members taking shortcuts or bypassing the existing contracting process. We have $40 million to spend in the next two months, but current practices by Mr. G and the program managers will prevent the region from successfully executing this program budget. We are working with Fadi to develop his program plan. However, we need see the region’s overall plan. At this time no region plan exists. Need to know what other large-scale projects are in the works. I know there a several great ideas brewing, but we have to be realistic.

In order to best execute our budget and prepare the region for future success it is imperative that we have a meeting of the minds. Those minds include Mr. G, COL Whiteford, Group Captain Wilkinson, LTC Hopfengardner, Fadi, Fern, Adley, Bob Z. [Zangas, killed with Fern in an ambush several weeks later], LTC Wheeler, Bob Stein [the civilian finance officer for CPA and the first one of the bunch to go to jail] and the contracting team. Eric has briefly mentioned this to the chief. It is also important to know that we have entertained a few investigators regarding reports of wrongdoing or misconduct. I anticipate more to follow. Finally, we should not forget the future visits by the GAO, Army Audit Agency (AAA), and other audit teams. In our haste to execute our generous budget we could potentially take unnecessary shortcuts which could come with negative results.

As always, Eric and I are in full support of the region’s efforts. Our decisions to extend our tours hinge on whether we are actually supporting these efforts while in keeping with the prescribed rules established by Ambassador Bremer and the Head Contracting Authority. We hope to continue to provide value to this organization which has done so much in so little time.


[End of email]

I was sure that the prosecutor already had a copy of this email because much of her case was built on emails. Yes, these fools left a paper trail in the CPA servers a mile long.

In January 2004 Debra Harrison decided to extend her tour in Iraq and stay at CPA in Hilla until the Coalition Provisional Authority was dissolved in June 2004. She talked Tamara Montgomery, her roommate, into staying with her. Within six weeks of my departure at the end of February 2004 Tami Montogomery was wounded in a firefight in Baghdad, leaving Debra alone. I don't know if Debra knew about the money being handed out when she decided to stay. I have often wondered about that - if her decision was based on the opportunity to reap ill-gotten gains. Or did she slide down the slippery slope after I left? I don't know. I doubt that I'll get the opportunity to talk to Debra again to find out.

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Saturday, February 03, 2007

Robert Stein is going to jail

[Robert Stein, a] former civilian contractor for the Defense Department was sentenced ... to nine years in prison and ordered to forfeit $3.6 million for his role in a bribery and fraud scheme involving contracts to reconstruct Iraq.

- LA Times, January 30, 2007

Robert Stein, along with an Army Reserve Lieutenant Colonel named Bruce Hopfengardner, steered Iraqi reconstruction money to an American contractor named Phillip Bloom. Stein and Hopfengardner worked in the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) South Central headquarters in Hilla during late 2003 and early 2004, the time when I also served there. The service of all of those men and women who were there during that time was besmirched by the actions of these men.

Two additional Army reserve lieutenant colonels have been charged but not yet convicted of crimes related to the actions of Stein, Hopfengardner and Bloom during that time. One of the those lieutenant colonels, a major at the time of the incident, worked directly for me. This is one thing about my service in Iraq of which I am not very proud.

I departed Iraq in February 2004 and the officer in question remained in Hilla until June 2004. According to news accounts, this officer allegedly received money for unspecified actions performed. I don't want to reveal the officer's name because of a presumption of innocence until proven guilty. My strong suspicion that the officer's alleged illegal actions took place after my departure is small consolation. Yet in the end my association with this scandal, however indirect, is painful to me.

Mike Gfeller, a State Department officer with experience in the Middle East and a fluency in Arabic, was the man in charge of CPA South Central at the time and, of course, must accept some responsibility. In my judgment he is a good and honorable man who worked long hours and achieved many notable accomplishments during his service in Iraq. His mistake was that he trusted the wrong people.

The big question to the outside observer is: How could something like this happen? I can give some reasons, but these points can by no means excuse the crimes that were committed.

I interacted with Stein and Hopfengardner almost every day but I had no supervisory responsibility over them, nor did I play any role in the process or oversight of the millions of dollars that were spent by CPA South Central for Iraqi reconstruction. The money being spent came from the hoards of cash hidden throughout Iraq by the former regime and seized by the Coalition forces during the invasion. None of these funds were provided by the U.S. taxpayer, yet the CPA had a responsibility for oversight and wise use of these monies.

The money was allocated by Ambassador Bremer to Mr. Gfeller with the objective of keeping the Shia dominated south central region of Iraq peaceful and content. All transactions in Iraq at that time were on a cash basis and CPA South Central had to literally drive to Baghdad, load up the cash in a vehicle and drive it back to Hilla, where it was kept in a safe at the former Babylon Hotel, the headquarters for South Central.

I observed some of the administrative procedures that were used to control the dispersal of this money. Project worksheets were prepared and approved and money was signed for when it was received. The money was paid to the contractors on a % completion basis and a U.S. Army Corps of engineers team was assigned to oversee the projects to verify that the work was done.

A lieutenant who worked for me was a project officer for some of the smaller projects in the Hilla area and I traveled with her as she inspected the projects to verify that the work was being completed. I also traveled with the Corps of Engineers Team as they inspected projects and I could see with my own eyes that work was being done.

There was considerable pressure to get these projects funded, worked and completed. I even felt the pressure because I knew the situation in Iraq. Electrical power was intermittent, gas lines were long and there was very little employment. We couldn't fix the electrical grid or the gas lines so we needed to demonstrate that we were doing something constructive for the long suffering Iraqi populace. To achieve this end, I saw no problem in approving the use of a lieutenant assigned to me on a part time basis to help get the money spent.

At the time (Fall 2003) we were all very frustrated at the progress of the reconstruction. In fact, the institution of spending controls by CPA in Baghdad seemed an unnecessary aggravation. They required that the proposed projects be publicly posted and that at least three bids be received. One source of my aggravation was that some local Iraqi contractors, not fully understanding the bidding process (a radical concept in Iraq at the time) were losing out to more savvy contractors in Baghdad. The results of the spending requirements appeared to be having an effect contrary to our goals.

Why all the rules, why the bids? we asked. We need to put these people to work before they start shooting at us. Someone shooting at us was on our mind every time we left the compound. The fact that I wasn't getting shot at, but others in my area were, was small consolation to me. As the number of attacks progressively increased I knew that the danger was increasing. So the pressure to get the money spent, to put the Iraqis to work and show them that something in their miserable lives, however small, was improving, came not only from my sense of duty in seeing the mission succeed but from a personal sense of increasing danger to myself and my soldiers.

No system or process, however complex, will prevent misappropriation of funds if the persons responsible are unethical. The rules governing oversight of public corporations in the United States would fill volumes but the corporate officers at Enron were able to get around them. Something else in Iraq, I believe, was one source of the problem. Seeing $50,000 or $100,000 written on a ledger is quite different than seeing the cash, in stacks of wrapped $100 bills, stacked on a table before you.

And there were numerous opportunities to see large amounts of cash. One morning, for example, my lieutenant project officer mentioned that she had $60,000 in cash in her bag. To me this was an astounding amount of money, more cash by many orders of magnitude than I had ever seen or handled. I didn't ask to her to open her bag so that I could look because I sensed that that much money displayed in the open was an unnecessary temptation for the others in the room.

I suspect, but not do not know, that the amount of fraud in Hilla increased after I left in February 2004 for several reasons. First, people began rotating out and weren't replaced. Unfortunately, some of these people leaving were involved in the oversight process and therefore weren't there for the plotters to worry about. Secondly, as CPA saw the June deadline approach for the transfer of sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government, the CPA employees began to frantically spend money on as many projects as they could. They did not have enough people to properly supervise such a large number of contracts. They saw their ability to influence the course of events slipping away and they had to compress their objectives into a unmanageable period of time.

I wasn't ever worried that my lieutenant would steal any of the money. In fact, at the time, I remember feeling a sense of pride that we were doing such a good job of using this money for its intended purpose. Little did I know.

Little did I know. Should I have known? Should I have done something about this? If I had known then I would have done something to correct the matter. If I had suspected something then I would have investigated. I truly believe that. But I didn't know. I didn't even suspect. I had many jobs in Iraq but auditing the expenditures of CPA South Central was not one of them.

Does any of that make me feel any better? No. Stein, Bloom and Hopfengardner have tainted me. Forever. And there's not anything that I can do about it.

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