Democrats seek Iraq embezzlement probe
May 23, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) — Two Democratic senators have asked the Treasury Department to investigate allegations that Iraqi leaders have embezzled or misspent billions of U.S. tax dollars intended for the country's relief and reconstruction.

In a May 20 letter to Stuart Levey, the department's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island called the scope of corruption within the Iraqi government staggering.

Levey's office, they said, should examine whether any Iraqi officials have set up bank accounts outside of Iraq "that might contain ill-gotten proceeds."

Citing recent congressional testimony from Arthur Brennan, a former State Department official, the senators said the inspector general of the Iraq's ministry of health had steered as much as $1 billion in medical supplies onto the black market and then pocketed the profits.

According to Brennan, it's likely some of that money is financing insurgent groups such as the Mahdi army, the militia loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

"In our estimation, the theft, conversion or other misappropriation of U.S.-provided funds and supplies by Iraqi government officials severely undermines our troops' mission in Iraq," Dorgan and Whitehouse wrote. "It is even more outrageous when these resources are diverted to our enemies and help finance, arm and equip attacks against American soldiers."

John Rankin, a Treasury Department spokesman, said Levey's office had not yet seen the letter.

"We'll consider it carefully when it arrives," he said.

Brennan headed the State Department's office of accountability and transparency at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. He held the job for less than a month before resigning in July 2007 due to his wife's health problems. Before taking the job, he was a New Hampshire superior court judge.

Brennan and James Mattil, who worked as the office's chief of staff for a year, testified May 12 before the Democratic Policy Committee, which Dorgan chairs.

Brennan and Mattil told the policy committee their office was understaffed and its warnings and recommendations were ignored.

Brennan alleged that the State Department prevented a congressional aide visiting Baghdad from talking with staffers by insisting they were too busy. Office members actually were watching movies at the embassy and on their computers, he said. The staffers' workload had been cut dramatically because of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's "evisceration" of Iraq's top anti-corruption office, he said.

In response to Brennan's allegations, the State Department said the administration takes the issue of corruption seriously. Spokesman Tom Casey pointed to the recent appointment of Lawrence Benedict as coordinator for anti-corruption initiatives at the embassy in Baghdad.

Benedict's appointment "is another demonstration that we are working at very senior levels to help the Iraqis deal with this issue," Casey said after Brennan's testimony. "Any assertion that we have not taken this issue seriously or given it the attention it deserves is simply untrue."

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