The U.S. government’s Afghanistan spending watchdog has recommended that three senior Army officers – a lieutenant general, a major general and a colonel – be disciplined for their role in the construction of a $36 million sprawling command center at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan that has never been used.
In an audit released Wednesday, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction says that the officers pushed the construction project over objections of commanders in the field, failed to carry out a proper internal investigation, and were guilty of ethical, legal and professional lapses.
It’s the first time the U.S. government’s independent watchdog in Afghanistan has recommended disciplinary action against such high-ranking military officers.
“This is one of the most outrageous, deliberate and wasteful misuses of taxpayer dollars in Afghanistan we’ve ever seen,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, the top-ranking Democrat on the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.
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“When it was clear this building wouldn’t be used, and when three commanders requested its cancellation, the Army not only built it anyway but completely failed to hold any officials accountable after all the facts came to light … so I'll now be fully expecting answers from the Army,” McCaskill said in a statement.
The Pentagon requested funds to build a 64,000-square-foot command and control center at Camp Leatherneck during a troop surge in 2010. But the regional commander in charge of the surge at the time – then-Maj. Gen. Richard P. Mills – said the facility wasn’t necessary and asked that it not be built.
Then-Maj. Gen. Peter M. Vangjel rejected Mills’ request to cancel construction. Auditors say Vangjel “believed that it would not be ‘prudent' to cancel a project for which funds had already been appropriated by Congress.”
The building wasn’t even finished until after the surge had ended, and it now stands empty. When auditors visited, plastic sheets still covered the never-used furniture.
“In the end,” the audit states, “$36 million in U.S. taxpayer funds was spent on a building the U.S. never used.”
An internal Army investigation led by Maj. Gen. James Richardson concluded that no one should be held responsible. The audit alleges that Richardson mismanaged the investigation and failed to interview key witnesses, including Vangjel.
When auditors opened their own investigation, they said, another senior officer, Col. Norman Allen, told Army officials to “slow roll” the probe in what auditor’s said was an attempt to interfere with their work.
The audit suggests that the Pentagon implement financial management training at all command levels to discourage a “use it or lose it” approach to spending.
The audit also recommends disciplinary action for Vangjel, who has since been promoted, for failing to cancel the project and for Richardson for failure to carry out a thorough internal investigation. The audit also said Allen should be disciplined for “his failure to comply with law, regulation, and his ethical and professional responsibilities.”
Vangjel disputed the allegations in a statement attached to the audit, saying it wasn’t true that he didn’t want to cancel the project because funds already had been appropriated by Congress.
Vangjel said his decision was “based on the best information available at the time, and was the right decision.”
“It properly balanced prudent stewardship of taxpayer dollars, ensuring they were spent on projects for which they were intended, and supported the strategic and operational commander intent,” he said.
Allen also contested the audit’s findings.
“I take strong exception to the allegations that I interfered in the process and demonstrated a lack of integrity and compliance with legal and ethical standards,” he said in a statement. “My efforts were intended to ensure we got timely and accurate information in order for the commander to take appropriate measures.”
Richardson did not respond to auditors’ request for comment, although they said they sent him a copy of the report.
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the audit was a classic example of Pentagon waste.
“Spending money for the sake of spending it shows complete disrespect for the taxpayers,” Grassley said in a statement. “Actively impeding a watchdog investigation adds insult to injury. Everybody responsible for this boondoggle ought to be held accountable for it.”