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U.S. ambassador to Albania cleared in ammo cover-up

The official had been accused of involvement in a case involving bullets made in China and shipped to Afghanistan.

March 19, 2009|Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The senior U.S. diplomat in Albania and his staff have been cleared of allegations that they were involved in covering up the illegal source of ammunition shipped to Afghanistan by an American military contractor, a State Department spokesman said Wednesday.

Justice Department officials have informed the State Department's inspector general that U.S. Ambassador John Withers and five other members of the embassy team are not targets or subjects of an investigation, spokesman Robert Wood said.

In June, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills), then chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, accused Withers of approving a plan to remove evidence that ammunition supplied by AEY Inc. had been made in China between 1962 and 1974.

AEY bought the bullets in Albania before shipping them to Afghanistan's security forces even though U.S. law bars the purchase of Chinese-made ammunition.

The State Department then attempted to conceal Withers' role from the committee, Waxman charged.

State Department officials defended Withers, calling him a distinguished career foreign service officer.

The inspector general was asked to look into Waxman's claims. Wood said the investigation found no evidence to support Waxman's allegations. The Justice Department agreed with that assessment.

In a statement to the Associated Press, Withers said he was pleased with the results of the investigation. "As I said last year, a fair examination of the evidence will lead, in the end, to the truth," he said.

A report released in June by Waxman's staff detailed the missteps by Army officials who awarded the nearly $300-million ammunition supply contract to AEY in January 2007.

AEY's top executive, Efraim Diveroli, was just 21 at the time. The company, based in Miami, had a poor record of performance on prior government work. Yet that information was missed or ignored, the report said. Under a series of contracts, AEY provided potentially unsafe helmets to troops in Iraq, failed to deliver 10,000 pistols to Iraq, and shipped inferior ammunition to Army Special Forces.

After $66 million in payments, AEY's Afghan ammunition contract was terminated in May. Diveroli and three others were charged in federal court in Miami with fraud over the prohibited ammunition. Diveroli has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer has filed a motion to dismiss the case.

Waxman's claims against Withers stemmed from an interview his committee staff had with Larry Harrison, who was chief of the office of defense cooperation at the U.S. Embassy in Albania.

Harrison described a meeting in mid-November 2007 between Withers and then-Albanian Defense Minister Fatmir Mediu to discuss how to respond to inquiries from the New York Times. The newspaper was investigating AEY Inc., and one of its reporters wanted to visit a site in Albania where the company was removing Chinese ammunition from its original packaging.

Mediu ordered an Albanian general to remove the Chinese markings before the visit.

According to Harrison, Withers agreed "that this would alleviate the suspicion of wrongdoing."

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