David S. Cloud / The New York Times – 2007-05-16 23:27:05
WASHINGTON (May 11, 2006) — The Pentagon is looking into complaints that Defense Department officials charged with building public support for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan might have engaged in improper fund-raising and unauthorized spending, officials said Friday.
The inspector general is examining whether officials who run “America Supports You,” a three-year-old Pentagon program lauded by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, helped arrange a fund-raiser for a private foundation set up last December by former Bush administration appointees. The foundation raises money to help troops and their families.
The inquiry is also looking into whether money used for “America Supports You” and other public outreach programs has been shifted improperly from Pentagon accounts intended for other purposes.
Internal memorandums and e-mail messages provided to investigators, copies of which were shared with The Times, suggest that Pentagon officials encouraged Mark Vahradian, a Hollywood film producer, to make the private foundation, called the “America Supports You Fund,” the beneficiary of a Los Angeles fund-raiser he is planning for later this year.
Pentagon employees are prohibited from soliciting on behalf of private organizations, said Bryan Whitman, a Pentagon spokesman. But Mr. Whitman said the Defense Department routinely referred members of the public to outside organizations, some of which are listed on a Pentagon Web site.
Though legally separate from the department’s program, the foundation is in many ways a creation of the Pentagon. It was established shortly after the department, because of legal concerns, abandoned plans to set up its own entity to raise private donations that would be handed out to private groups involved in helping soldiers who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and their families.
Mr. Whitman said that the Pentagon had no evidence so far of wrongdoing by officials, and that the decision to ask for an inspector general’s inquiry was made out of an “abundance of caution” after complaints by employees to the department’s Office of the General Counsel.
“If there is something that we are doing that is inappropriate, if there is something that we are doing that is illegal, if there is something that we are doing that gives the appearance of impropriety, we want to know about that because these are important programs,” Mr. Whitman said.
The decision to open an inspector general’s inquiry came several days after The New York Times asked the Pentagon questions about the “America Supports You” effort after obtaining memorandums, and other documents from an employee critical of the Pentagon’s involvement.
Mr. Vahradian, whose movie credits include “Annapolis” and “Transformers,” said in an interview that he had been invited to go on a department-financed trip last fall to Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait, where he and other civilians on the trip met with American troops and with commanders. Participants were also allowed to fire heavy machine guns at a firing range and to participate in mock raids against “insurgents,” at the Army’s Forward Operating Base Dagger in Kuwait.
The private America Supports You Fund and the Pentagon program with a similar name share the same goal: to promote and encourage the work of grass-roots groups that help soldiers and their families with things like small care packages for deploying troops and renovating houses to accommodate soldiers who come home wounded.
But some department officials also appear to have seen the new foundation as an important tool in their push to maintain public support for troops overseas, a task that they feared had become much tougher since the November election put the Democrats in control of Congress.
“What we have learned is that the American people are beginning to fatigue, even in their support for the troops,” Allison Barber, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs said in a January 3 internal department memorandum announcing the creation of the private foundation. “I don’t think we have a minute to lose when it comes to maximizing support for our military, especially in the new political environment.”
Ms. Barber also noted in the e-mailed memorandum that the Pentagon’s America Supports You effort was a “non-political” program.
In January, several months after his Middle East trip, Mr. Vahradian, the producer, expressed a desire to do something to help troops. Ms. Barber then suggested a Hollywood fund-raiser to help the fledgling foundation, according to two internal Pentagon memos. “Mark is talking to senior producers (i.e. Jerry Bruckheimer) to gauge interest. This could slowly evolve into a large event,” according to an unsigned Pentagon memorandum that notes Ms. Barber had told Mr. Vahradian in January that one of her “concepts for the event” was that the “ASY Fund” should be the “beneficiary” of the donations.
A second Pentagon-organized trip in February took Mr. Vahradian to the American naval base and detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. In a telephone interview this week, Mr. Vahradian said that he had returned from the trip impressed and that the visit had heightened his willingness to raise money to support American troops.
Such tours are not unusual; for years the Pentagon has arranged them for private citizens like Mr. Vahradian to promote awareness of the military and encourage public support. Only in the last year, Pentagon officials said, have tours and other outreach efforts been used to encourage participation in the department’s America Supports You program.
Mr. Whitman, the Pentagon spokesman, said that Ms. Barber would not comment for this article so as not to interfere with the inquiry.
The Pentagon sought last summer to set up an in-house entity that could accept donations, an effort that reflected officials’ desire to do more to help the troops. But that effort was abandoned, Mr. Whitman said, after Pentagon officials determined that the department could not accept contributions unless specifically authorized to do so by Congress.
Officials then turned to the idea of establishing a private foundation. Grant Green, a former Pentagon and State Department official, said in an interview that he agreed at Ms. Barber’s request to help set up the foundation and seek tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service so that donors could write off gifts.
Mr. Green said that the foundation had not yet obtained tax-exempt status and so far had raised only about $10,000. He declined to identify the donors. “DOD can’t accept the money, so this fund is being established so that we have a vehicle to accept contributions,” Mr. Green said.
Mr. Vahradian said he was planning to hold his fund-raiser for the private foundation this fall. He has asked the Pentagon to supply senior officials and enlisted soldiers to talk about their service. Though support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is minimal in Hollywood, Mr. Vahradian said, he hoped to attract donors by emphasizing the importance of helping the troops and by keeping the event “apolitical.” Film studios and producers often seek help from the Pentagon on movies, such as access to military facilities or use of military equipment, said Mr. Vahradian.
“In our business we ask a lot from the military,” Mr. Vahradian said. “Having their support is certainly helpful.” But the fund-raiser “is not going to help my career in any way,” he said. “It’s going to help my conscience.”
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