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A Bright Career Unravels in Iraq

The Pentagon says an officer known for her integrity used her post for personal gain.

April 19, 2006|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

In May 2003, Garner was replaced by Bremer. Garner became concerned that his security detail -- made up of former members of the South African special forces -- would be left without jobs.

He recommended the South Africans to Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who was leading the effort to establish a police force in Iraq.

Garner said he ordered Olson to assist the South Africans in winning jobs with Kerik by helping them through the U.S. contracting process. The South Africans subsequently went to work for Meteoric.

"While I was there, to my knowledge, the things that Kim did were based on my instruction," Garner said. "I never gave her an illegal order. There was nothing wrong with her giving [the South Africans] assistance as to how to go through the U.S. contracting process."

After Garner left at the end of May 2003, Olson stayed on to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority's Program Review Board, which was responsible for approving contracts using Iraqi funds. Olson began helping Meteoric win contracts and did other work for the company, the Pentagon investigation said.

She put together a promotional packet that featured a picture of Garner and the leader of the South Africa security team, Lion Olivier. The packet included a letter of recommendation from Garner, the investigation said.

Olson also helped Meteoric draft contract proposals to provide security guards, which the company later won, the Pentagon said. One contract, valued at $600,000, was to provide security for Kerik. A second, worth $1.9 million, was to provide security for trucking convoys operated by KBR. Meteoric won at least one other contract, for nearly $500,000, to provide protection to senior British officials in Iraq.

Over the summer of 2003, Olson allegedly became a director of the South African company, sought visas for company officials, contacted senior Pentagon officials to resolve a payment dispute in favor of the company, and wrote letters and invoices on behalf of the company. One coalition official estimated that Olson spent 70% of her time working on Meteoric matters, the Pentagon investigation said.

By that fall, rumors spread that Olson had some connection to Meteoric. The Pentagon's Defense Criminal Investigative Service opened an investigation that resulted in the Air Force conducting a so-called Article 15 proceeding, a military inquiry used for less serious crimes.

In her rebuttal, Olson objected to many of the military investigators' conclusions. She denied that she helped steer work to Meteoric, or that she was a director of the South African company. Investigators found copies of contract proposals mailed from her computer to Meteoric, but she said her computer was frequently used by Meteoric guards, who worked in an office next door.

Olson also denied forming the U.S. office of Meteoric in March. She said she opened the U.S. company in July 2003, after consulting with a Pentagon ethics official, in order to pursue security contracts with private businesses, not with the Department of Defense. She acknowledged receiving $12,000 in "start-up money" from South Africans involved in Meteoric to help the American branch of the company, but said she returned the money.

Olson resigned from the U.S. company in October 2003, she said, and the firm "had no customers, entered into no contracts and made no money."

James Cole, Olson's lawyer, said that Olson refuted many of the Pentagon investigators' conclusions and avoided a court-marital. She agreed to plead guilty to less serious offenses, including creating the appearance of conflict of interest based on her involvement with Meteoric and failing to get her commander's approval before pursuing outside employment.

"With a full understanding of the facts, we were able to show her commanding officer that the serious allegations in the report were not substantiated," Cole said.

In March 2005, Olson was reprimanded and ordered to pay $3,500. The sanction effectively ended her career. Olson's former commander, who issued the sanctions, could not be reached. Air Force lawyers involved in the proceeding declined to comment.

A separate branch of the Air Force concerned with regulating contractors later took up Olson's case. It concluded that Olson's actions were "fraudulent" and "seriously improper." Air Force Deputy General Counsel Steven A. Shaw issued a finding in October 2005 that banned Olson and Meteoric from receiving contracts for three years. The ban is not yet final.

Meteoric ran into trouble elsewhere. Employees were arrested in 2004 on suspicion of participating in an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. A former U.S. military official said some of the men had ties to Executive Outcomes, a controversial mercenary outfit involved in fighting civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola.

"These guys were knuckle-draggers," the official said.

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