It began with a gas station in Afghanistan that should have cost less than $500,000 but reportedly cost $43 million U.S. tax dollars. The deal was cut by a federal agency that has spent $800 million tax dollars to date. When the Inspector General who polices all that spending started to dig inhe became the target of a campaign to discredit his work.
John Sopko: Part of this was to develop a market in Afghanistan for compressed natural gas automobiles.
John Sopko is talking about this $43 million dollar compressed natural gas station in Afghanistan. Impractical and overpriced, he found, by about $42 and a half million dollars.
Sopko: They really didn’t do any market surveys. They really didn’t see if there was enough liquefied natural gas or compressed natural gas.
It’s one of the most notorious boondoggles Sopko has uncovered as the Inspector General policing the billions of U.S. tax money spent to rebuild Afghanistan. He’s shown here on a recent inspection in Kabul.
The gas station, it turns out, was the brainstorm of an arcane federal agency: the Defense Department’s Task Force on Business and Stability Operationsor TFBSO.
It spent an astounding $800 million American tax dollars over five years to kick start the Afghan economy.
Sopko: We received more allegations about TFBSO than we have about any other government entity. We heard allegations that uh they didn’t do any due diligence they wasted the money and basically the program didn’t succeed.
Appointed by President Obama, Sopko--a former mafia prosecutoris widely-considered an effective watchdog of a government culture resistant to oversight. Which may be why he’s now been targeted by efforts to discredit him and his work.
One sign came earlier this year. On the eve of a Congressional hearing about the gas station,
the Defense Department gave Congress and select reporters - entirely new figures on the supposed cost and suggested Sopko’s team had it all wrong.
Sopko: The night before, the Defense Department said oh, by the way, all those data all that data is wrong. Which it may have been but -- we got it from them.
At the hearing, the Defense Department’s Brian McKeon claimed the true cost of their military funded gas station was far less than $43 million dollars. As proof, he referred to a new memo supposedly written by military consultant Robert Schraven.
Brian McKeon: The consulting firm that conducted the assessment has also reviewed its work, and we have sent a copy of their memo to the committee staff indicating that total costs of the station are likely well under $10 million.
And the hearing on government misspending suddenly seemed to put Inspector General Sopko, the IG, in the hot seat.
Sen. Tim Kaine: There are also some questions about the IG
Senator Tim Kaine challenged Sopko’s accounting methods and accused him of waffling on the gas station’s price tag.
Sen. Kaine: But the fact that the IG is putting out material with two different numbers is something that I definitely want to dig into today and understand.
Sharyl Attkisson: When you were sitting there and hearing the Defense Department redefine the numbers they had given you, and in essence blaming your agency as some dishonest broker, what was going through your mind?
Sopko: Welcome to Washington. (laughs) I’ve seen this before.
Sopko vigorously defended his work.
Sopko: I would remind all of the members, our requirement is to report the best number available. We do not make numbers up. In the end, whether it is $43 million or $20 million or $10 million, it is still a lot more than should have been spent in Afghanistan.
Sopko: So if they’re now claiming it’s wrong well then, what’s going on with your recordkeeping?
Attkisson: I watched that hearing to me it was remarkable. They made it look like you were the guy that got everything wrong. That you had some axe to grind.
Sopko: But I felt certain we had the right numbers we were right. As long as you’re right the truth will come out. And I think a number of members on the committee also realized that this totally unfair and totally bogus.
Senator Claire McCaskill wasn’t buying the military’s new memo on the gas station’s lower cost.
Sen Claire McCaskill: The argument that has been put forth in the press that somehow the figures in this are not correct, I mean frankly, all you did was fan the flames that somehow it was not $43 million when you cannot even say where the $30 million went. This is a terrible waste of taxpayer money when we have so many other uses for it.
After the hearing, Sopko continued his investigation of TFBSOand he remained in the crosshairs. Some in the press advanced the theme that he’s “overzealous” and “sloppy.” Stories quoted anonymous critics at the federal agencies where he’s found waste, fraud and abuse.
Attkisson: This is the Politico article that I know you’ve seen that talked about you as if you were the guy that made all the mistakes.
Sopko: Yep. There was one where they referred to me as the Donald Trump of Inspectors General.
Sharyl: Meaning what?
Sopko: Well I think back then they thought it was a criticism, but in light of the election it may not be a criticism.
Sopko’s critics usually quoted anonymously appear to come from the ranks of those he’s overseeing. One anonymous ex-military official told reporters “Sopko has turned his office into a cheap media operation that does real damage to due process and U.S. policy.” None of the critics we contacted would speak with us for this report.
Neil Gordon of the watchdog Project on Government Oversight says Sopko is exactly what the public needs.
Neil Gordon: Certainly Sopko is fairly aggressive, very outspoken, but we think that aggressiveness is important in an inspector general because they need to safeguard taxpayer money in this case tens of billions of dollars that have been spent in Afghanistan.
He says if the military is engaged in PR warfare to undermine Sopko, it’s not the first time.
In 2014, USA Today obtained inside evidence of an “aggressive spin campaign” by the military against Sopko. The “Plan of Action” reportedly involved the Pentagon going public to blunt Sopko’s findings before he could release them.
Gordon:. It was likened to a duck hunt where they said that the military will be out bagging its share of ducks while Sopko was still waking up and putting his boots on.
There are lots of reasons why federal agencies and contractors would be unhappy with Sopko’s work.
He exposed $150 million tax dollars spent on luxury villas in Afghanistan to house a handful of workers who could have lived at a military base or the Embassy for next to nothing.
He uncovered $36 million dollars wasted on a giant US military headquarters in Afghanistan that generals on the ground said they didn't want or need.
And he unearthed $600 million dollars spent on a fleet of Afghan airplanes that never flew and were scrapped for pennies on the pound.
As Sopko continued his probe into the overpriced military funded gas station, he discovered a new surprise. Shraven, the consultant whose name was on the memo the Defense Department gave Congress, claiming the gas station really didn’t cost that muchsaid he didn’t write the memo.
Sopko: We took a look at it and we actually talked to the person who had allegedly, I say allegedly (quotes) wrote the report because the person denied authoring it We didn’t really find out who did author that report. But you know nobody likes an IG who is trying to find out the truth. I won’t say nobody. There are a lot of people in town who don’t like it because a lot of people in town made their careers or made a lot of money on some of these stupid programs.
Sopko says he now has a host of new questions about TFBSO.
Sopko: We have now been asked by Senator Grassley and Senator Ayotte and others to do a full blown audit of the entire 800-million-dollar program. And what we are basically finding is the records are horrible. They didn’t keep records. And so we’re finding waste, fraud and probably abuse throughout the program
As for that compressed natural gas station, Senator McCaskell
Sen. McCaskill: No metrics, no cost-benefit analysis, no sustainability analysis, a program that is dumb on its face. The average person in Afghanistan, their annual income is $690. It costs $800 to convert a car to natural gas. Did anybody in the room sit there and say, is there anybody in Afghanistan that can afford this?
Sopko: Inspectors Generals are nonpartisan. I was appointed by President Obama to ferret out fraud waste and abuse and I will continue doing that job under President Trump. The way I view it is: fraud is not Republican or Democrat, it’s not red or blue, but we’re talking about green. You know I’m here to protect the taxpayers’ green. The taxpayers’ money. And we’ll continue doing that.