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4 senators urge Obama to fire Afghanistan watchdog

FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2010 file photo, Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction Gen. Arnold Fields speaks during news conference at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. A group of U.S. senators is urging President Barack Obama to fire the special inspector general responsible for overseeing how billions of American tax dollars are being spent to rebuild Afghanistan. FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2010 file photo, Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction Gen. Arnold Fields speaks during news conference at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. A group of U.S. senators is urging President Barack Obama to fire the special inspector general responsible for overseeing how billions of American tax dollars are being spent to rebuild Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq, File)
By Richard Lardner
Associated Press Writer / September 23, 2010

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WASHINGTON—A group of senators urged President Barack Obama on Thursday to fire the special inspector general responsible for overseeing how billions of American tax dollars are being spent to rebuild Afghanistan.

In a letter to Obama, the lawmakers -- three Republicans and one Democrat -- say the inspector general, Arnold Fields, is at the helm of a failing organization and needs to be replaced. The senators said three independent reviews of Fields' office found multiple problems, including a failure to meet minimum standards for conducting investigations.

Fields, a retired Marine Corps major general, was traveling to Afghanistan on Thursday. The office's spokeswoman, Susan Phalen, did not address the letter in an e-mailed statement. But she said numerous improvements have been made following the reviews by the Council of Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency.

The special inspector general's office is "in full compliance with all the attorney general's guidelines for inspectors general with statutory law enforcement authority," Phalen said.

Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, signed the letter.

Their complaints are not new. In December 2009, McCaskill, Collins and Coburn told Obama that Fields' office lacked leadership and focus at a time when aggressive, independent oversight of Afghanistan's reconstruction was more important than ever. In March 2009, they told Obama that Fields was failing to hire enough qualified staff to perform the oversight mission.

The U.S. has committed $51 billion to Afghanistan's reconstruction since 2001, and plans to raise the stakes to $71 billion over the next year -- more than it has spent on reconstruction in Iraq since 2003.

The senators said the independent reviews found the office failed to meet minimum standards for quality control of its audits, which could leave them vulnerable to challenge. The reviews also found the office focused on producing a large number of audits rather than high-quality audits, and faulted auditors for lacking a strategic plan.

Also troubling to the senators was Fields' decision to award a $95,000 consulting contract to Joseph Schmitz, a former Pentagon inspector general. Schmitz resigned in 2005 to become chief operating officer and general counsel for the company owned by Erik Prince, the former Navy Seal who founded Blackwater Worldwide. Schmitz left the Prince Group in December 2008 and now runs a law firm.

Schmitz's tenure as Pentagon inspector general was marred by allegations of "ethical misconduct, quashing audits and misleading Congress," according to the senators. "The decision to pay Mr. Schmitz to assist in correcting SIGAR's own failures raises serious questions regarding Mr. Fields' judgment."

In an e-mailed statement, Schmitz said the senators' letter "contains materially misleading descriptions of defamatory allegations against me" while serving as inspector general. The allegations were investigated in 2005 and 2006 by the same independent panel that examined Fields' office and Schmitz was cleared of any wrongdoing.

"To republish any of these defamatory allegations now, as if they had merit -- even with an annotation that they had been cleared -- would cause serious damage to my professional reputation," Schmitz said.

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Online:

Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction: http://www.sigar.mil/