WASHINGTON — When Jay Garner arrived as the first U.S. administrator in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, he chose a highly decorated Air Force colonel named Kimberly D. Olson as his right arm because he considered her among the best America had to offer.
One of the first female pilots in the Air Force, she was a hard-charger with an unblemished reputation for honesty, a high profile in the Pentagon and a commitment to the U.S. goal of creating a democracy in the Middle East.
Today, Olson is at the center of accusations of audacious impropriety in the corruption-plagued reconstruction of Iraq.
She is accused of profiting from the post-invasion chaos by using her position to benefit a private security firm that she helped operate, according to interviews and government documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times.
Pentagon investigators allege that while on active duty as one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, Olson established a U.S. branch of a South African security firm after helping it win more than $3 million in contracts to provide protection for senior U.S. and British officials, as well as for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co.
Olson, 48, has spent more than a year fighting the charges. In military proceedings last year, she denied abusing her position to enrich herself or the security company, but agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges. She was reprimanded and allowed to resign from the Air Force with an honorable discharge and no reduction in rank. Olson was also banned from receiving further government contracts for three years. She is appealing the ban.
To her defenders, including Garner and other prominent people, Olson's troubles are evidence that Washington regulators are imposing unreasonable standards of conduct for a war zone. Friends described Olson as a problem solver who moved from crisis to crisis and who was punished for her effort to get things done in a chaotic environment.
Olson's legal file is packed with endorsements and letters of recommendations from Garner and his successor as U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, as well as from top military and civilian officials in Iraq and Washington. Some worry the action against her is an overzealous prosecution that might impinge on reconstruction efforts.
Government officials "are going over there with the best of intentions, and they're coming back and being grilled," said Bob Polk, who was the director of plans for Garner. "It will have a chilling effect the next time."
But government investigators say Olson took advantage of her position for personal gain and made a mockery of U.S. efforts to establish the rule of law in a country long ruled by corrupt autocrats. Olson is the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to be accused of wrongdoing in connection with the reconstruction.
Olson did not respond to requests for an interview, but she supplied by e-mail a point-by-point response to the charges against her. The e-mail said the military's version of events contained "numerous factual statements and conclusions that are not accurate."
In interviews, Garner defended his former aide, saying he thought she was trying to carry out his orders to help his personal bodyguards find work in Iraq.
"Kim Olson is one of the most honest people that I've ever known," said Garner, who was in charge of the first occupation government in Iraq, known as the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. "I don't think she got a proper hearing."
The previously undisclosed Olson case is the latest controversy over corruption allegations involving private security contractors in Iraq.
It also points up the chaotic beginnings of the reconstruction, plagued from its start by accusations of waste and fraud.
In January 2003, Garner, a retired Army general turned defense contractor, was chosen by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to lead the reconstruction effort in Iraq. Olson, a senior official in the Pentagon's comptroller office, was initially assigned to work on financial matters, but Garner soon made her his executive officer, impressed by her can-do attitude, he said.
As Garner assembled his team in Kuwait in mid-March in preparation for moving into Iraq, he found that he would need private security to protect him and other senior U.S. officials. Garner asked for military protection, but was told there would not be enough troops available.
About the same time, Pentagon documents say, Olson took steps to open an office out of her home in Vienna, Va., for Meteoric, which was based in Pretoria, South Africa. Four months later, she filed formal incorporation papers that made her director of the new American entity.
It was the beginning of a substantial boom for private security in Iraq, where more than 25,000 security contractors working for scores of different companies now operate. The Government Accountability Office estimates that at least $766 million has been spent on security contracts in Iraq.