Afghan Watchdog Blames Corrupt U.S. Officials for Botched Prison Project

Afghan Watchdog Blames Corrupt U.S. Officials for Botched Prison Project

Billions of dollars have been wasted in Afghanistan since the U.S. launched ambitious plans to rebuild the country in 2002, and American watchdog John Sopko has spent the past two years documenting American-led reconstruction failures caused by mismanagement or outright corruption on the part of Afghan officials.

But a new report from Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, found that at least one incident of mismanagement — the failed attempt to renovate Pol-i-Charkhi prison, Afghanistan’s largest correctional facility — came at the hands of two State Department employees charged with overseeing the project. And in an unusual role reversal, it was an Afghan national who actually had to fill their shoes after both Americans were suspended from their posts for fraud and mismanagement.

In 2009, when the U.S. State Department awarded a $20.2 million grant to Al-Watan Construction Company, an Afghan company, to renovate Pol-i-Charkhi, the project was supposed to improve living conditions and provide better separation between maximum-security prisoners and others inmates. Pol-i-Charkhi, located east of Kabul in Afghanistan,  is one of five prisons constructed or renovated with funds from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, or INL.

But Sopko’s office found that even though Al-Watan only completed 50 percent of the contracted work, the State Department still paid the company $18.5 million – over 90 percent of the initial agreement.  Though SIGAR recommended the State Department investigate whether the settlement was appropriate, State declined the possibility it was influenced by biased employees.

Al-Watan also managed to break their contract by botching necessary roof repairs. Construction workers used wood roof trusses instead of the metal ones agreed upon in the contract, then covered up the 30-year-old wood trusses with new material instead of replacing them entirely, as they were contracted to do. Sopko’s office was unable to track down any written permission for Al-Watan to replace the metal trusses with wooden ones. He also found that Al-Watan failed to properly connect six costly back-up power generators.

The watchdog laid much of the blame for Al-Watan’s failings at the feet of Kenneth Brophy, a State Department employee who oversaw the work that was completed at the prison. Sopko’s report said that Brophy’s lack of proper oversight meant the work was not always completed responsibly. "Although the contracting officer was able to execute some oversight and issue clear warnings to [Al-Watan] regarding its performance, INL’s oversight efforts were compromised by a U.S. employee who served as the Contracting Officer’s Representative for the [Al-Watan] renovation contract," Sopko’s report said.

Brophy was suspended by the State Department in 2010 when it was discovered he accepted $30,000 for lobbying on behalf of the construction firms involved in the prison renovation. Despite repeated reports that the contracted company had failed to reach deadlines and performed sloppy construction work, Brophy advocated on their behalf to help them renew their contract. He was later sentenced to one year unsupervised probation, a $3,000 fine, and $30,000 forfeiture by a U.S. District Court for accepting illegal gratuities from the company.

Brophy’s American replacement was no better, Sopko said. 

His stand-in negotiated the settlement with Al-Watan for $18.5 million only to later resign amid suspicions he may have colluded with another INL contractor to enable the substitution of inferior products and approve questionable invoices, among other concerns. After his suspension, an Afghan official took over and help finalize the negotiation process with Al-Watan. There is currently an ongoing investigation into the American employee’s potentially fraudulent behavior.

The contract with Al-Watan was halted in 2010 and officially terminated for convenience by the State Department in 2012. Three other projects that had been awarded to the company — a potable water tower, a commercial power upgrade, and a new staff barracks — were transferred to Afghan prison authorities. Those cost $5.3 million.

In its formal response to Sopko’s report, State acknowledged Brophy’s wrongdoing and said it is committed to completing the renovations project. But INL estimated the remaining renovations could cost upwards of $11 million, plus another $5 million for a necessary wastewater treatment plan, much of which could have been avoided if State employees had properly overseen the projects.

The prison, built to hold 5,500 prisoners, currently houses close to 7,400. Overcrowding in the facility adds to the same security concerns the renovations were supposed to address, as it is difficult to separate prisoners when there is not enough space for all of them to begin with.

This is the fourth SIGAR inspection report documenting the State Department’s mismanagement in Afghanistan released this month. An earlier report outlined unsuccessful and expensive attempts by the State Department to curb the growth of poppy in rural areas, where despite a $7 billion counternarcotics effort, poppy growth is on the rise. Another reported that three television trucks purchased by State for $3.6 million were delivered two years late and have sat in Kabul unused. In an Oct. 1 review of a Defense Department, USAID, and State Department plan to supply electricity to Kandahar province, SIGAR questioned the effectiveness of their joint approach, accusing the U.S. government of having "no realistic plan" in place.