US slammed for 'blank check' in Afghan justice program
US officials were on Thursday facing stiff criticism for failing to ensure proper monitoring of a $47.7 million program to help train Afghan judges and lawyers.
In a damning letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, a special watchdog highlighted "serious deficiencies" in the oversight of the Afghanistan Justice Training Transition Program aimed at helping to build a proper legal system in a country decimated by years of war.
The special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, warned that the program lacked "basic provisions" to allow the State Department "to ensure proper monitoring and evaluation of a project expected to cost US taxpayers nearly 50 million."
The contract was awarded to the Rome-based International Development Law Organization (IDLO) and launched in March this year to provide "nationwide criminal justice training and mentoring for prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys and criminal investigators."
"It will transfer operations and management to the Afghan government in a sustainable manner by the end of the intervention in 2015," the IDLO said on its website.
But Sopko's office said the contract was not even offered to any other organizations, and that "preliminary information gathered by SIGAR auditors suggests that IDLO is ill-prepared to manage and account for US-taxpayer funds will be spent."
"Immediate transparency is necessary," the watchdog argued to ensure the award does not "turn into a blank check, even if it means renegotiating the current agreement to provide for proper oversight."
The letter comes as the State Department finds itself under increasing fire for failing to audit contracts correctly as it throws billions of dollars into the reconstruction of Afghanistan.
A bill adopted by members of the House of Representatives was amended Wednesday to insert a provision that Kerry must draw up a plan by July 1 next year for implementing an auditing system.
If he fails his salary and that of the special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan could be cut by 25 percent, if the 2014 State and Operations Appropriations bill passes the Senate.
Sopko said in a statement to AFP: "The State Department -- for some inexplicable reason -- gave IDLO 50 million in US taxpayer dollars, then gave away any oversight of this foreign entity."
"The irony here is that State violated its own written policy and gave them a huge check to teach the Afghans about the 'rule of law.' We're going to get to the bottom of this and hold people accountable."
In his letter, he warned Kerry that the IDLO had not been helpful in providing information or copies of its teaching materials.
His office might therefore have to subpoena the organization to provide records of its work in Afghanistan.
Sopko urged Kerry to "review all similar contracts and grants... related to Afghanistan reconstruction to ensure arrangements have been made for proper oversight."
A recent audit by the inspector's office found that from 2002 to 2011, the State Department made 140 awards of $1 million or more, totaling $315.3 million for Afghanistan reconstruction. But 99 of the awards were never audited.