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War zone contracting termed huge failure Print
By Robin Acton - TRIBUNE-REVIEW - Monday, May 4, 2009

Lt. Col. Dominic "Rocky" Baragona dreamed of making a million dollars, buying the house next door to his parents and taking care of them when he retired from the Army.

Six years after his death, the Ohio soldier's parents are due nearly five times the amount of their son's dream from a federal court decision against the foreign defense contractor found responsible for killing him in a May 19, 2003, traffic accident in Iraq. The 1982 West Point graduate was ejected when his Humvee was struck by a KGL truck driven by an Egyptian employee of the contractor.

However, the elder Dominic and Vilma Baragona might never see the $4.9 million judgment because the Kuwait & Gulf Link Transport Co. appealed the ruling, claiming that a U.S. federal judge lacked jurisdiction because the crash occurred overseas.

Legal experts say the case is an example of many weaknesses in a wartime government contracting system fueled by more than 197,000 private contractors — U.S. citizens, locals from Iraq and Afghanistan, and third-country nationals recruited from around the world — hired to work in the war zones at a rate unprecedented in U.S. history.

Government agencies report:

• A lack of oversight has led to widespread abuse among contractors who have bilked the government out of millions of dollars.

• There is no accurate count of contractor personnel in the war theater, just as there is no uniform system to track workers killed or injured.

• Private contractors' legal status is different from that of U.S. government employees; military leaders have less authority over contractors than over military or civilian subordinates.

• Criminal cases and civil lawsuits involving contractors, which are not tracked by U.S. agencies, routinely raise political and jurisdictional questions.

"This has been a massive failure. We have failed our military, and we have failed the American people," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., testified during a February hearing of the Commission on Wartime Contracting.

Matter of logistics

The Government Accountability Office, using a Department of Defense census, last year estimated there were at least 197,718 private contractors — and possibly thousands more — working for the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they transport fuel, supplies and equipment, perform maintenance and construction jobs, provide security, and conduct intelligence analysis.

U.S. agencies awarded $85 billion in private contracts for work in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, the Congressional Budget Office reported last year. In fiscal 2007 and the first half of fiscal 2008, the government spent $33.9 billion on 57,000 contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan combined, the GAO found.

John Hutton, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the GAO, told Congress last month that lack of oversight increased costs. For example, because the Department of Defense in 2006 failed to note what contractors are entitled to, the government spent an extra $43 million in Iraq on free meals to contractors who had food allowances, he noted.

Still, retired Lt. General William Gus Pagonis, director of logistics for the Persian Gulf War in 1991, said the military cannot function without third-party support because private contractors allow troops to focus on the combat mission.

"There have been over a million troops rotated in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan. If not for third-party contractors, we would have needed 4 million," Pagonis said. "I don't know how we'd do that without the draft."

Pagonis said overseeing private contractors during a prolonged war has been a huge task for contracting officers because of ever-changing military movements. He said he was able to control contracting in 1991 because he was the sole person authorized to hire contractors for the operations, which ended in a matter of months.

No quick fix

Experts pointed to efforts to revamp aspects of the contracting system.

A nonprofit watchdog group, Project on Government Oversight, monitors civil, criminal and administrative violations among contractors for its Federal Contractor Misconduct Database. Nevertheless, spokesman Neil Gordon said there is no central repository that contains information about every company hired by the U.S. government.

"For one thing, there's not a lot of information out there about Middle Eastern companies," Gordon said.

Defense authorization acts for fiscal 2008 and 2009 set guidelines that require government agencies to collect more detailed information on contracts awarded in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although the GAO reports that data collection thus far is not uniform, it said agencies should include a contract description, dollar value and numbers of workers employed, killed and wounded.

In January, Iraq's parliament revoked a previous legal immunity provision that makes U.S. contractors subject to many aspects of Iraqi civil and criminal law.

And in March, McCaskill addressed jurisdictional issues when she introduced the "Lt. Col. Dominic 'Rocky' Baragona Justice for American Heroes Harmed by Contractors Act." The bill, retroactive to Sept. 11, 2001, would require government contractors to agree to let U.S. courts decide disputes arising from contracts.

If it becomes law, it could affect an untold number of cases, including a lawsuit filed against Houston-based defense contractor KBR Inc. by the parents of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, of Shaler, who was electrocuted in his Baghdad shower last year. The plaintiffs claim KBR performed shoddy electrical work at the Radwaniyah Palace Complex, something that KBR denies even though one of its Filipino electricians admitted installing the pump that sent an electrical current into Maseth's shower.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Scranton, who has pushed for contractor accountability as the result of 18 electrocutions in Iraq since 2003, said McCaskill's bill would "pressure companies to be more careful in how they operate in a foreign setting."

"Oversight in these instances is critically important," said Casey, a co-sponsor. "Unfortunately, we're learning a lot of hard, painful lessons in Iraq."

Pamela Baragona Robinson of Shawnee Hills, Ohio, said the legislation bearing her brother's name would change the way many foreign contractors operate.

"Right now, they can operate with low standards. They work with no oversight, and they hire untrained foreign nationals," she said.

Although the Army Criminal Investigative Division ruled the crash accidental, her family hired Washington attorney Steven Perles to pursue a civil suit. In 2007, U.S. District Judge William Duffey in Atlanta ordered KGL to pay the Baragonas $4,907,048 after its representatives failed to attend hearings.

KGL attorneys, who appealed the ruling, did not respond to a request for comment.

Baragona Robinson said no sum can compensate for the loss of her brother, whom she described as the family caretaker.

"He was the one you wanted to be like," she said.
 
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