Exclusive: Top Afghan oversight official stepping down

Exclusive: Top Afghan oversight official stepping down

The Cable has learned that Herbert Richardson, the acting special inspector general
for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR) is stepping down after only six months on the job, leaving that troubled office without a leader for the second time this year.

Richardson has been running the SIGAR office since the January firing of Arnie Fields, who was finally removed from his position after more than a year of complaints by senior senators including Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Tom Coburn (R-OK), and Susan Collins (R-ME). Fields was criticized for running an oversight office that failed to produce results in the effort to find waste, fraud, and abuse in the tens of billions of dollars in contracts for Afghanistan reconstruction.

Richardson was never nominated to be permanent SIGAR and was leading the office as acting chief. But he will return to the private sector this month, according to four sources with direct knowledge of his decision. The SIGAR office declined requests for comment and said that Richardson was unavailable, in meetings all day. There’s no word yet on who will take over as SIGAR.

On Capitol Hill, concerned lawmakers and staffers were actually hopeful that Richardson was improving the performance of the SIGAR office. Today, those congressional offices are back to voicing their usual disappointment and skepticism.

"He stopped some of the suck that was going on there, but it was only six months," one GOP senate aide told The Cable. "At this point they are supposed to be firing on all cylinders. And now that he’s leaving, who knows."

"He came in with such fanfare and their team said there would be a ‘culture change’ with his arrival," said a House Democratic staffer. "So much for culture change if it was dependent upon leadership."

Coincidentally, SIGAR officials were on the Hill this morning to brief staffers on their quarterly report. Richardson was expected to attend but did not show up. One staffer who attended the briefing said that SIGAR officials failed to mention that Richardson is leaving and the briefing itself left a lot to be desired.

"It was a weak briefing because they have a weak product," this House staffer said. "They just aren’t producing convictions at a pace comparable to the results being produced by their counterparts at [the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction] SIGIR in terms of Iraq."

SIGIR, which was established first and is led by the well respected Stuart Bowen, has a shrinking mission as the U.S. presence in Iraq winds down. Some lawmakers, such as Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) are calling for SIGIR and SIGAR to be combined into something called the office of the Special Inspector General for Overseas Contingency Operations (SIGOCO), an idea that SIGAR has lobbied hard against.

"Rather than a piecemeal and reactive approach to the oversight of billions of dollars in these situations, we need a dedicated shop run by a proven investigator who can report to the National Security Council, and the Defense and State departments, without being cowed by political pressure," Honda told The Cable. "A permanent Office for Contingency Operations, whose mandate would transcend political timetables, would send the message that transparency, efficiency and efficacy are institutional priorities, and waste and corruption will not be tolerated."

One Senate staffer noted that the law that established SIGAR actually gives the president the authority to combine that office with its Iraq counterpart, placing them both under the control of Bowen.

"Everyone is looking for cuts of agencies that are not performing or duplicative," this staffer said. "We could shut down SIGAR, give some of that money to the DOD Inspector General’s office, some for debt reduction, and call it a day."

The United States has committed $51 billion to Afghanistan reconstruction since 2001; that endowment will reach $71 billion by the end of 2011, according to the AP.

UPDATE: Late Thursday afternoon, Richardson put out a statement confirming our report.  "After more than 37 years of public service, I’ve decided to accept an opportunity in the private sector, at a time when I’m convinced SIGAR has changed course, is producing results, and is being led effectively by the new leadership team that I’ve put in place," he said.