Pentagon Watchdog Misses Billion Dollar Audit
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Military auditors failed to complete an audit of the business systems of an Ohio-based contractor even though it had billed for $1 billion worth of work over the last four years, largely done in Afghanistan. Immediately after this fact came to light at a public hearing of the bi-partisan Commission on Wartime Contracting, the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) scrambled to dispatch an extra 10 staff to catch up on the job.
Mission Essential Personnel (MEP), which Corpwatch profiled here, supplies 6,000 translators to the U.S. military, mostly in Afghanistan. The company’s costs have not been singled out as questionable or unsupported, but the failure of the government agency to oversee taxpayer money is an indicator of widespread problems and staff shortages at this key military agency.
"How does the government know we're getting our money's worth?" asked Christopher Shays, co-chair of the commission and a former member of Congress from Connecticut, at the July 26 hearing.
"This was a major miss on DCAA's part," Michael Thibault, the other co-chair and a former deputy director of DCAA, told CorpWatch.
DCAA has oversight over half a trillion dollars of taxpayer money every year. It is supposed to constitute the "first line of defense" against corruption when the Pentagon contracts anything from bunker-buster-bombs from Lockheed Martin, to rockets from Boeing, or when it subcontracts military support operations as it did when it paid Halliburton subsidiary, KBR, to hire Sri Lankans to clean toilets in Iraq.
Despite past success – including exposing Halliburton’s inability to account for billions of dollars early in the occupation of Iraq – DCAA management has drawn fire in the last two years for giving military contractors a clean bill of health and ignoring serious problems in corporate financial systems spotted by lower ranked staff.
Whistleblowers have charged that instead of actively pursuing waste, fraud, and abuse, the top ranks of DCAA were obsessed with signing off on as many audits as possible in the shortest period of time. DCAA management has also been accused of harassing and intimidating staff who have spoken out. The DCAA estimates that the savings it has made for the taxpayer plummeted from $51 for each dollar spent on staff and overhead in 1984 to just $5 today.
Muzzling A Pentagon Watchdog
The first shot across DCAA's bow was fired by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the U.S. Congress. In a July 2008 report that provoked alarm among politicians, the GAO gave DCAA a failing grade for not complying with government standards on 14 major audits.
"This auditing agency has been exposed as being fundamentally corrupt in the way they issue audits," Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, a former Missouri state auditor, told her fellow senators in Congress at the time.
The agency’s lapses also sparked internal criticism and multiple internal upheavals as angry staffers battled management - notably in a public forum via the website of Government Executive magazine.
Then in September 2009 both the GOA and the Pentagon's inspector general issued critical reports, and the Pentagon, after conducting confidential interviews with 68 DCAA staff, confirmed some allegations of staff harassment.
Founded in 1965 to provide the U.S. Air Force, Army, Navy, and Ordnance Department with uniform oversight of contractors was first headquartered in the now closed Alexandria, Virginia Cameron Station, a cold windowless building fitted with rows of steel gray desks.
Even in the days before computers and modern accounting techniques, its auditors were able to catch corrupt contractors and save millions. To do their jobs, the staff sometimes had to battle their own and Pentagon management who were reluctant to criticize the big contractors.
DCAA expanded quickly. By 1966, it had 3,662 staffers around the country with oversight over $21.5 billion. As the Vietnam War ramped up, the DCAA’s "Flying Squad" would fly Huey helicopters to forward bases in the jungle to check up on work done by contractors.
By the end of the 1980s DCAA had more than 6,000 staff and today, with headquarters in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, it has some 300 offices and sub-offices around the world. The agency's staff still get on helicopters -- now Blackhawks and Chinooks -- in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait to visit forward bases and inspect contractor’s books. Although DCAA primarily serves the U.S. military, it also conducts audits for other agencies including the Department of Energy and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
In the last 45 years, DCAA's oversight of contract dollars has expanded more than four-fold (adjusted for inflation) to $501 billion in proposed or claimed contractor costs that required 30,352 audits in 2008.
Not surprisingly the agency staff has struggled to keep up with demand, and as far back as the 1980s, it had a six to seven year backlog to complete audits. This lag had a major impact on payments to military contractors, which were typically paid just 85 percent of costs on delivery of services, with the remaining 15 percent paid out several years later -- only if the auditors were satisfied.