Franck Rich / The New York Times & Gleen R. Simpson / Wall Street Journal – 2007-10-22 23:11:08
Suicide Is Not Painless
Franck Rich / The New York Times
(October 21, 2007) — It was one of those stories lost in the newspaper’s inside pages. Last week a man you’ve never heard of — Charles D. Riechers, 47, the second-highest-ranking procurement officer in the United States Air Force — killed himself by running his car’s engine in his suburban Virginia garage.
Mr. Riechers’s suicide occurred just two weeks after his appearance in a front-page exposé in The Washington Post. The Post . reported that the Air Force had asked a defense contractor, Commonwealth Research Institute, to give him a job with no known duties while he waited for official clearance for his new Pentagon assignment.
Mr. Riechers, a decorated Air Force officer earlier in his career, told The Post: “I really didn’t do anything for C.R.I. I got a paycheck from them.” The question, of course, was whether the contractor might expect favors in return once he arrived at the Pentagon last January.
Set against the epic corruption that has defined the war in Iraq, Mr. Riechers’s tragic tale is but a passing anecdote, his infraction at most a misdemeanor. The $26,788 he received for two months in a non-job doesn’t rise even to a rounding error in the Iraq-Afghanistan money pit.
So far some $6 billion worth of contracts are being investigated for waste and fraud, however slowly, by the Pentagon and the Justice Department. That doesn’t include the unaccounted-for piles of cash, some $9 billion in Iraqi funds, that vanished during L. Paul Bremer’s short but disastrous reign in the Green Zone. Yet Mr. Riechers, not the first suicide connected to the war’s corruption scandals, is a window into the culture of the whole debacle.
Through his story you can see how America has routinely betrayed the very values of democratic governance that it hoped to export to Iraq. Look deeper and you can see how the wholesale corruption of government contracting sabotaged the crucial mission that might have enabled us to secure the country: the rebuilding of the Iraqi infrastructure, from electricity to hospitals. You can also see just why the heretofore press-shy Erik Prince, the owner of Blackwater USA, staged a rapid-fire media blitz a week ago, sitting down with Charlie Rose, Lara Logan, Lisa Myers and Wolf Blitzer.
Mr. Prince wasn’t trying to save his employees from legal culpability in the deaths of 17 innocent Iraqis mowed down on Sept. 16 in Baghdad. He knows that the legal loopholes granted contractors by Mr. Bremer back in 2004 amount to a get-out-of-jail-free card. He knows that Americans will forget about another 17 Iraqi casualties as soon as Blackwater gets some wrist-slapping punishment.
Instead, Mr. Prince is moving on, salivating over the next payday. As he told The Wall Street Journal last week, Blackwater no longer cares much about its security business; it is expanding into a “full spectrum” defense contractor offering a “one-stop shop” for everything from remotely piloted blimps to armored trucks. The point of his P.R. offensive was to smooth his quest for more billions of Pentagon loot.
Which brings us back to Mr. Riechers. As it happens, he was only about three degrees of separation from Blackwater. His Pentagon job, managing a $30 billion Air Force procurement budget, had been previously held by an officer named Darleen Druyun, who in 2004 was sentenced to nine months in prison for securing jobs for herself, her daughter and her son-in-law at Boeing while favoring the company with billions of dollars of contracts. Ms. Druyun’s Pentagon post remained vacant until Mr. Riechers was appointed. He was brought in to clean up the corruption.
Yet the full story of the corruption during Ms. Druyun’s tenure is even now still unknown. The Bush-appointed Pentagon inspector general delivered a report to Congress full of holes in 2005. Specifically, black holes: dozens of the report’s passages were redacted, as were the names of many White House officials in the report’s e-mail evidence on the Boeing machinations.
The inspector general also assured Congress that neither Donald Rumsfeld nor Paul Wolfowitz knew anything about the crimes. Senators on the Armed Services Committee were incredulous. John Warner, the Virginia Republican, could not believe that the Pentagon’s top two officials had no information about “the most significant defense procurement mismanagement in contemporary history.”
But the inspector general who vouched for their ignorance, Joseph Schmitz, was already heading for the exit when he delivered his redacted report. His new job would be as the chief operating officer of the Prince Group, Blackwater’s parent company.
Much has been made of Erik Prince and his family’s six-digit contributions to Republican candidates and lifelong connections to religious-right power brokers like James Dobson and Gary Bauer. Mr. Prince maintains that these contacts had nothing to do with Blackwater’s growth from tiny start-up to billion-dollar federal contractor in the Bush years. But far more revealing, though far less noticed, is the pedigree of the Washington players on his payroll.
Blackwater’s lobbyist and sometime spokesman, for instance, is Paul Behrends, who first represented the company as a partner in the now-defunct Alexander Strategy Group. That firm, founded by a former Tom DeLay chief of staff, proved ground zero in the Jack Abramoff scandals. Alexander may be no more, but since then, in addition to Blackwater, Mr. Behrends’s clients have includeda company called the First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Company, the builder of the new American embassy in Iraq.
That Vatican-sized complex is the largest American embassy in the world. Now running some $144 million over its $592 million budget and months behind schedule, the project is notorious for its deficient, unsafe construction, some of which has come under criminal investigation. First Kuwaiti has also been accused of engaging in human trafficking to supply the labor force. But the current Bush-appointed State Department inspector general — guess what — has found no evidence of any wrongdoing.
Both that inspector general, Howard Krongard, and First Kuwaiti are now in the cross hairs of Henry Waxman’s House oversight committee. Some of Mr. Krongard’s deputies have accused him of repeatedly halting or impeding investigations in a variety of fraud cases.
Representative Waxman is also trying to overcome State Department stonewalling to investigate corruption in the Iraqi government. In perverse mimicry of his American patrons, Nuri al-Maliki’s office has repeatedly tried to limit the scope of inquiries conducted by Iraq’s own Commission on Public Integrity. The judge in charge of that commission, Radhi Hamza al-Radhi, has now sought asylum in America. Thirty-one of his staff members and a dozen of their relatives have been assassinated, sometimes after being tortured.
The Waxman investigations notwithstanding, the culture of corruption, Iraq war division, remains firmly entrenched. Though some American bribe-takers have been caught — including Gloria Davis, an Army major who committed suicide in Kuwait after admitting her crimes last year — we are asked to believe they are isolated incidents. The higher reaches of the chain of command have been spared, much as they were at Abu Ghraib.
Even a turnover in administrations doesn’t guarantee reform. J. Cofer Black, the longtime C.I.A. hand who is now Blackwater’s vice chairman, has signed on as a Mitt Romney adviser. Hillary Clinton’s Karl Rove, Mark Penn, doubles as the chief executive of Burson-Marsteller, the P.R. giant whose subsidiary helped prepare Mr. Prince for his Congressional testimony. Mr. Penn said the Blackwater association was “temporary.”
War profiteering happens even in “good” wars. Arthur Miller made his name in 1947 with “All My Sons,” which ends with the suicide of a corrupt World War II contractor whose defective airplane parts cost 21 pilots their lives. But in the case of Iraq, this corruption has been at the center of the entire mission, from war-waging to nation-building.
As the investigative reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele observed in the October Vanity Fair, America has to date “spent twice as much in inflation-adjusted dollars to rebuild Iraq as it did to rebuild Japan — an industrialized country three times Iraq’s size, two of whose cities had been incinerated by atomic bombs.” (And still Iraq lacks reliable electric power.)
The cost cannot be measured only in lost opportunities, lives and money. There will be a long hangover of shame. Its essence was summed up by Col. Ted Westhusing, an Army scholar of military ethics who was an innocent witness to corruption, not a participant, when he died at age 44 of a gunshot wound to the head while working for Gen. David Petraeus training Iraqi security forces in Baghdad in 2005. He was at the time the highest-ranking officer to die in Iraq.
Colonel Westhusing’s death was ruled a suicide, though some believe he was murdered by contractors fearing a whistle-blower, according to T. Christian Miller, the Los Angeles Times reporter who documents the case in his book “Blood Money.” Either way, the angry four-page letter the officer left behind for General Petraeus and his other commander, Gen. Joseph Fil, is as much an epitaph for America’s engagement in Iraq as a suicide note.
“I cannot support a msn that leads to corruption, human rights abuse and liars,” Colonel Westhusing wrote, abbreviating the word mission. “I am sullied.”
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Inside the Greed Zone: Suicide by Anti-Freeze
Gleen R. Simpson / Wall Street Journal
CAMP ARIFJAN, Kuwait (October 20, 2007) — Marshall Gutierrez was classic military material, a working-class kid whose father and both grandfathers served in the armed forces.
He joined the Army and marched steadily up the hierarchy, ultimately becoming a lieutenant colonel and chief logistics officer at this sprawling base in Kuwait. His Army record was spotless, and he developed a reputation as a bit of a straight arrow.
So it isn’t surprising how Lt. Col. Gutierrez reacted in 2005 when he discovered signs of rampant overcharging by the Army’s main food supplier for the Iraq war. Bags of Coca-Cola syrup available in the US for about $10, for example, were going for $90. He blew the whistle. That triggered a massive criminal probe of Kuwait-based Public Warehousing Co. that is now raising questions for such major American food companies as Perdue Farms Inc. and Sara Lee Corp., and is shaping up as one of the biggest fraud probes of the Iraq War.
Then the tables turned. The Kuwaiti contractor accused Col. Gutierrez of seeking bribes, setting in motion a bizarre chain of events that left his military career and his 22-year marriage in ruins. On Sept. 4, 2006, he was found dead in his quarters at the age of 41. Next to his body were an empty container of prescription sleeping pills and a plastic bottle of antifreeze.
The story of Col. Gutierrez, who Army investigators allege wound up tainted by the very corruption he complained about, is one thread in the expansive fraud and corruption investigation into firms supplying food to troops in Iraq. The Justice and Defense Departments are investigating overcharging and possible favoritism in awarding of contracts. Col. Gutierrez’s role in the inquiry emerges from interviews with military officials, contractors and others involved, as well as emails, letters, court filings and other written material.
Marshall Gutierrez grew up in the little town of Las Vegas in the foothills of New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a descendant of the original farmers who received Spanish land grants to settle the area. He was a driven and intensely proud man, both of his achievements as a soldier and his Hispanic heritage, says his widow Brenda, also a Las Vegas native.
The two met a quarter-century ago at a church event. He was 15, she was 13. At the age of 16, Brenda discovered she was pregnant — a harsh predicament for two teenagers in a small, conservative Catholic community. “His mother offered to send him away to another school elsewhere in the state, and he didn’t. He married me,” Ms. Gutierrez recalled. “This was not a guy that ran away from trouble or from any type of a difficult situation.”
They married two years later, and he started serving in the Army National Guard the very next weekend. After high school, he worked his way through college on a scholarship from the Army Reserve Officers’ Training Corps and became a commissioned officer in 1987.
The couple commenced the itinerant life of a military family, bouncing from Newport News, Va., to Colorado Springs, Colo., to Saudi Arabia after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. In Panama, Capt. Gutierrez led the 1097th Transportation (Medium Boat) Company, which moved thousands of tons of materiel and in 1994 won a prestigious Army award.
“He was a hard charger. He did not accept any sort of failure. His way or the highway was how he was,” recalls Sgt. Sean Kelly, who served under him in Panama. “But he also was able to motivate the people who worked under him to literally accomplish the impossible.”
Eventually Mr. Gutierrez rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and in 2005, he shipped out to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, a large logistics and staging facility with fast-food restaurants and Internet cafés.
CAMP ARIFJAN is now at the center of the US inquiries into contracting corruption. One Saudi catering company, Tamimi Global, allegedly had a “party house” frequented by contractors and at least five military contract officers, according to a sworn statement in July 2006 by a former Army officer, contained in US court records.
The officer admitted taking $8,000 in bribes and gifts from a Tamimi executive and another $50,000 from another catering firm. He claimed he had witnessed at least five other Army officers taking bribes in the course of roughly a dozen parties at the Tamimi house.
Camp Arifjan sends numerous truck convoys to Iraq every day. Most of the freight is handled by Public Warehousing, which began as a modest Kuwaiti government spinoff. Now publicly traded, it is one of the largest transport companies in the world. Under a series of contracts worth more than $6 billion, Public Warehousing is designated a “Prime Vendor” for virtually all food served to US forces in Iraq and Kuwait — some 150,000 stomachs.
Within months of arriving in Kuwait, Col. Gutierrez clashed with Public Warehousing over its prices for various items, according to emails he sent that are now part of the Army record of the case. He questioned why Public Warehousing was charging the Army about $90 for five-gallon bags of Coca-Cola syrup when they could be found for around $40 from Kuwait City merchants, the emails indicate.
Col. Gutierrez began supplying information via email to Gary Shifton, a top official at the Pentagon’s Defense Supply Center in Philadelphia. In November 2005, Pentagon officials launched an investigation. The inquiry focused on Public Warehousing’s pricing agreements with its own suppliers.
Investigators suspect the military wound up paying inflated prices for everything from preserved milk to lobster tails, according people involved in the investigation and courts records from US civil litigation between Public Warehousing and the Defense Department.
The investigators are looking into whether Public Warehousing passed along high prices from its suppliers to the military, then was improperly compensated by those suppliers through large rebates and discounts, the court records and the people involved say. One focus is Sultan Center, a supplier with close ownership and managerial ties to Public Warehousing, which refunded to Public Warehousing some 10% of the military sales it received.
Food wholesalers often give customers such as Public Warehousing “prompt payment” discounts of a few percentage points. The Pentagon agreed that Public Warehousing could keep such discounts, according to emails cited in the US civil litigation. What’s in dispute is whether those discounts were so excessive they amounted to kickbacks, or whether they were improperly used to pump up prices.
Public Warehousing says in a statement that its prices include “not only the cost of the food it supplies, but also the costs associated with storing, handling and delivering it at multiple locations in a war zone.” More than 30 of its employees, it adds, have been killed on the job.
Col. Gutierrez and his aides began systematically analyzing Public Warehousing’s prices. He found some troubling numbers, including that the Army was paying $8 a pound for green beans, his emails indicate. Public Warehousing says the military required a hard-to-find style of green beans. Prices were high on some other items that were perishable or hard to find from qualified suppliers, it says.
Col. Gutierrez and his team were getting help from Public Warehousing’s chief competitor, Tamimi Global. In January 2006, Tamimi’s director of operations in Iraq and Kuwait, Shabbir Khan, provided Col. Gutierrez and other officials with a spreadsheet comparing Public Warehousing’s prices to the local market.
AT THE TIME, Mr. Khan was already the subject of a major investigation involving fraud and bribery at Camp Arifjan. He was subsequently convicted. A spokesman for Tamimi says Mr. Khan’s illegal conduct occurred “without the company’s knowledge.” Army officials say the investigation into Tamimi is continuing, and investigators are looking into Mr. Khan’s contact with Col. Gutierrez. Tamimi is cooperating, its spokesman says.
A week after he received the spreadsheet from Mr. Khan, Col. Gutierrez submitted his own analysis to his superiors at Camp Arifjan. “I have started looking at the items we are purchasing from Public Warehousing,” he wrote to the camp’s commander. “We are being charged way too much for food.”
Two days later, on Feb. 8, 2006, Mr. Shifton of the Pentagon’s contracting office in Philadelphia sent an email to Public Warehousing declaring that “the urgent concern is that we are paying too much” for local items from Sultan Center. “This matter is urgent.”
That triggered alarm at an outside consulting firm used by Public Warehousing to help it deal with the Pentagon. A few hours after Mr. Shifton sent his email to Public Warehousing, an executive at the consulting firm, Professional Contract Administrators of Albuquerque, N.M., sent an email marked “URGENT” to Public Warehousing. It advised Public Warehousing’s chief executive, retired Navy officer Charles “Toby” Switzer, to “fire somebody, blame it on them and cover up” by revising the local-market prices. “ASAP — THIS IS VERY SERIOUS.” Mr. Switzer forwarded the messages to subordinates, adding that he agreed, “except the firing part.”
Public Warehousing officials say the tone of the emails is misleading. The company, they say, was merely seeking to be attentive to customer complaints. On Feb. 12, Mr. Switzer met with Col. Gutierrez and other contracting officials and promised a thorough price review.
But soon Col. Gutierrez was making decisions that weren’t good for either Public Warehousing or Sultan Center. In early May, for example, he requested that some $21 million in purchases of vegetables, dairy and baked goods be shifted from Public Warehousing to Tamimi.
In July 2006, the investigation took a strange turn. Col. Gutierrez had a meeting at Camp Arifjan with a Public Warehousing sales executive, Mike Abdul Rahman. He passed Mr. Rahman a piece of paper which read: “I need 1,000 KD, can you help?” according to a subsequent affidavit from an Army investigator who interviewed Mr. Rahman. KD is the abbreviation for Kuwaiti dinars. A thousand dinars is worth around $3,500.
Mr. Rahman told other officials at Public Warehousing, the company said. While top executives at the company debated what to do, the two men met again on Aug. 6. On Aug. 9, case documents state, Public Warehousing’s chief, Mr. Switzer, approached one of the most senior officers at Camp Arifjan, Brig. Gen. Raymond Mason, and revealed the alleged bribe solicitation. The general referred the matter to criminal investigators at Camp Arifjan.
On Aug. 13, Col. Gutierrez and Mr. Rahman met once again, this time at the officer’s home. They allegedly discussed a $3,500 payoff in exchange for inside information on bulk fuel and laundry services contracts, the Army case record states. But again no money changed hands. The officer claimed to need cash because he had taken a young Kuwaiti woman as a girlfriend, according to an investigator’s affidavit.
A few days before Col. Gutierrez was arrested, his former housekeeper called his American wife and alleged he had secretly converted to Islam and married an 18-year-old Kuwaiti woman. Investigators found several text messages he allegedly sent to the housekeeper denying her claims and urging her to retract them.
At the time, Col. Gutierrez’s American wife, who had been living with him in Kuwait, had returned to the US to attend to a sick relative. Days later, she received the news that he had purportedly married the Kuwaiti girlfriend in a phone call from her husband’s former housekeeper in Kuwait, who was angry about being fired.
On Aug. 18, Mr. Rahman met Col. Gutierrez a little before midnight at an upstairs corner table at Diva’s, a restaurant with English sports playing on the television and pictures of American movies stars such as Marilyn Monroe and John Travolta stripped across the marquee. The two men smoked tobacco through a shisha, a traditional Arab water pipe. Mr. Rahman was wearing a hidden microphone. Both Kuwaiti and Army criminal investigators were monitoring from nearby, case records indicate.
The two men left in Col. Gutierrez’s car for Mr. Rahman’s home, the case record says. As they drove, Mr. Rahman offered the officer a bundle containing the 1,000 dinars, according to two people with knowledge of the investigation. Col. Gutierrez told him to put it in the car’s center console, they say. Agents then surrounded the car and arrested Col. Gutierrez.
The colonel protested that he was being set up. His widow and a lawyer hired by his family now say they suspect he was framed by Public Warehousing because the company knew he had blown the whistle on it. A spokesman for Public Warehousing say the company had merely “notified the government of a suspected corruption ring within the US military in Kuwait” and “played a pivotal role in a successful sting operation that stemmed from the investigation.”
FOLLOWING THE ARREST, Army investigators searched Col. Gutierrez’s home off the base and found alcohol and a magazine it termed pornography. Both are illegal in Kuwait. They also found some $27,000 in US and Kuwaiti currency and a two-week-old Kuwaiti marriage certificate, which described Col. Gutierrez as the husband of an 18-year old Kuwait resident named Fatima Al-Rahdi under the religion of Islam. Ms. Al-Rahdi, also known as Yasmine, couldn’t be located for comment.
Col. Gutierrez was charged with bribery, mishandling secret information, accepting illegal gifts and illegal possession of weapons, alcohol and pornography, and bigamy.
Col. Gutierrez was locked in an 8-by-8-foot steel cage next to some soldiers accused of murdering Iraqi detainees. During his first hours of detention, his lawyer wrote in a later legal filing, he “momentarily succumbed to the weight of his circumstances” and underwent “a brief bout with momentary anxiety over his current predicament.” Military officials describe it as a suicidal episode, but decline to elaborate. Later, Col. Gutierrez was caught with a makeshift knife fashioned from a plastic spoon, and charged with illegal possession of a weapon. Two days later, he was caught allegedly attempting to make a weapon from a safety razor.
FIVE DAYS AFTER his arrest, his military lawyer, Capt. Stephen McGaha, motioned to release him from preventive detention. “The government has chosen to materially misrepresent the strength of their case by charging one alleged instance of bribery 5 separate ways,” he complained. About a week later, Col. Gutierrez was released from detention and transferred to nearby Camp Victory to await court-martial proceedings.
On Sept. 4, shortly after 9 a.m., Col. Gutierrez went to a restaurant at the camp, the Green Beans Café, and bought $1.50 worth of muffins. Later that day, his body was found in his camp quarters. There was no note. Two autopsies concluded that he had died of poisoning from ingesting ethyl glycol, the active ingredient of antifreeze. The Army ruled his death a suicide.
In an interview, his widow Brenda expresses bewilderment about his death, which she is reluctant to characterize as a suicide. “The last time I spoke to him, he said, ‘We’re going to fight this.’ The lawyer said it looks good. So there’s no way.”
Many questions about the case remain. How did he meet his second wife and why did they decide to marry? What was the nature of the Col. Gutierrez’s relationship with the Tamimi executive later convicted of bribery?
And more broadly, how pervasive is fraud and corruption in the Army’s food-procurement system? The amount in dispute in the Public Warehousing investigation is, at a minimum, $100 million, according to people involved in the probe.
Col. Gutierrez probably violated military law in his relationship with the Kuwaiti woman. Official records show the marriage was legally registered with Kuwait’s Ministry of Justice on July 29. The document states that Ms. Al-Rahdi was his second wife (taking a second wife is legal in most Islamic countries), and lists his religion as Muslim. He agreed to pay her a $20,000 penalty in the event they divorced.
James Culp, a lawyer who represents the Gutierrez family, argues that the evidence of corruption by the colonel is far from clear. The audiotape of the sting operation, he says, is of poor quality and hard to understand, and the other evidence is “weak at best, if it even existed.” The Army says it cannot talk about the Public Warehousing probe because it is still open.
NO EVIDENCE has been found indicating that Col. Gutierrez had any substantial hidden assets. The evidence inventory in the case listed a silver-and-gold Rolex watch, but it was recently returned to his family after Mrs. Gutierrez produced a receipt showing her husband bought it before his deployment to Kuwait. Several receipts seized by the agents showed that the liquor found in his home consisted of $400 in purchases from the US Embassy’s American Employees Welfare Association. Liquor sales are legal at the embassy, but Kuwaiti law bars the possession of liquor outside foreign embassies.
The government claims in a civil-forfeiture action that the $27,000 in cash is the proceeds of bribery. Mrs. Gutierrez says she insisted that her husband have a large sum of cash on hand “to make sure we could get [the family] out of Kuwait fairly easy should something happen.”
Mrs. Gutierrez says she doesn’t know what to think about her late husband’s purported second marriage. But she refuses to believe that he was corrupt. “None of this stuff fits in his character at all,” she says. “He had never been involved in anything like this, and he has been in several other positions like this where he had access to lots of money, millions and billions.”
“I’m very upset that he was put in that situation in the first place,” she continues, referring to his assignment to a base allegedly riddled with corruption. “Either way, whether he did commit suicide or not, the military has blood on their hands, in my opinion.”
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