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Worries Raised on Handling of Funds in Iraq

A hearing details the transfer of $2.4 billion in $100 bills to Baghdad in 2004 and the billions more sent before. U.S. oversight is questioned.

June 22, 2005|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — It weighed 28 tons and took up as much room as 74 washing machines. It was $2.4 billion in $100 bills, and Baghdad needed it ASAP.

The initial request from U.S. officials in charge of Iraq required the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to decide whether it could open its vault on a Sunday, a day banks aren't usually open.

"Just when you think you've seen it all," read one e-mail from an exasperated Fed official.

"Pocket change," said another e-mail.

Then, when the shipment date changed, officials had to scramble to line up U.S. Air Force C-130 cargo planes to hold the money. They did, and the $2,401,600,000 was delivered to Baghdad on June 22, 2004.

It was the largest one-time cash transfer in the history of the New York Fed.

Disclosure of the frantic transfer in the final days of U.S. control over Iraq came during a daylong hearing Tuesday that indicated growing worry from Congress over U.S. oversight of spending in Iraq.

Both Republicans and Democrats appeared taken aback by the volume of cash sent to Iraq: nearly $12 billion over the course of the U.S. occupation from March 2003 to June 2004, said a report by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who had reviewed e-mails and documents subpoenaed from the bank.

The cash -- a total of 363 tons, generated mostly from oil revenues -- was Iraqi funds that had been held in trust by the Federal Reserve under the terms of a United Nations resolution.

The June 2004 money transfer was needed to run the country as the interim Iraqi government took over from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, officials said.

Rep. Christopher Shays ( R-Conn.), chairman of the House national security subcommittee, criticized the Pentagon's handling of the money known as the Development Fund for Iraq.

"It's very clear that ... we didn't have systems in place to account" for the funds, he said.

"It doesn't mean they weren't spent well, but, given my sense of human temptation, I suspect some of it was, frankly, taken," Shays said.

"I can't believe that all this cash just floating around all went perfectly to the right place."

Those concerns were echoed by Democrats on the panel, who criticized Halliburton Co., the oil services firm once run by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Democrats repeatedly have questioned the use of the Iraqi funds to pay Halliburton, pointing to Pentagon audits that found the company might have overcharged as much as $200 million for fuel and other purchases.

And lawmakers from both parties criticized the Pentagon for failing to turn over complete copies of the audits to a U.N. board that monitored the Iraqi funds.

There was "hardly any accountability," Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) said.

"In effect, we were handing out $100 bills on contracts like candy."

Defense Department officials at the hearing acknowledged weaknesses in the system but said that much of the money had been handed over to Iraqi officials, who then spent it on governmental expenses, such as worker salaries.

Prior audits by Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, found that more than $8.8 billion in such funds could not be properly accounted for.

"There were observable results of what that money was spent on," said Joseph Benkert, deputy director for the Pentagon's Iraq reconstruction office.

"Salaries for hundreds of thousands of government employees were paid. We know for a fact that the government workers were paid. Government ministries operated. We know that they operated. Various projects were done on behalf of those ministers, and we know what those projects are."

Defense officials defended their deletion of information from audits related to Halliburton's performance that had been turned over to the International Advisory and Monitoring Board, appointed by the U.N. to oversee the spending of Iraqi funds.

They acknowledged that Halliburton had requested that information in the audits be withheld, including allegations that the firm had spent too much money in purchasing fuel. By law, contractors can request that the government withhold any proprietary information from release.

Halliburton said that KBR, a subsidiary firm, had requested the removal of information considered sensitive, but that final approval for the redactions rested with the government.

"Any attempt to criticize KBR for its role in this perfectly normal and legal part of the contracting process is unfounded," Cathy Mann, a Halliburton spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. "Our requests for redaction were just that -- requests. These redactions were ultimately reviewed and evaluated by [the government], and some were accepted and some were overruled."

Bowen, who testified at the hearing, said investigations were continuing into the spending of Iraqi funds.

He said that at least three cases of possible fraud involving the funds were recently referred for criminal prosecution to the Justice Department. The cases stemmed from spending by U.S. officials at an outpost in Hillah, Iraq, south of Baghdad.

"This was an enormously challenging situation," Bowen said.

"Inevitably in such an environment, with so much cash, and such an enormous task and limited resources ... there were inefficiencies, and we found them."

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