A senior Democrat senator is pressing for an update on the legally-mandated audit of the Defense Department’s financial records after a recent federal watchdog study found the U.S. spent almost $43 million building a natural gas station in Afghanistan.
A report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found the department awarded a roughly $3 million contract to Central Asian Engineering to construct the gas station but the final price tag wound up being $42.7 million, with $12.3 million spent on direct costs and $20 million in overhead.
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Auditors also found the Pentagon’s Afghanistan “slush fund”— the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations, designed to focus on economic redevelopment in U.S. war zones – didn’t conduct a feasibility study before starting the project.
The discovery still has many Capitol Hill lawmakers seeing red, including Sen. Ron Wyden (OR), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee.
Earlier this year he, along with several other Senate lawmakers, introduced legislation that would impose penalties on the Pentagon if it fails meet a legally mandated goal of being fully auditable by September 2017.
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The filling station “appears to be exactly the type of unacceptable boondoggle that our legislation aims to prevent,” he said Monday in a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
“With this in mind, please provide my office, in writing, an update on DOD’s auditability efforts, including the best current estimate of when the department will be audit-ready,” Wyden added.
Starting in 1997, the Government Accountability Office has been required to audit the federal government’s consolidated financial statements but the watchdog agency has repeatedly said its reviews of the Pentagon are not based on accurate data. This is a particularly troubling claim since the department accounts for over half of U.S. discretionary spending.
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In a slow-moving effort to lower expectations, Pentagon officials have hinted to congressional lawmakers several times, in Capitol Hill hearings or elsewhere, that the agency might not be able to meet the 2017 goal.
The audit bill, originally introduced by Wyden, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and GOP presidential rivals Rand Paul (KY) and Ted Cruz (TX), calls for increased oversight every year the department fails to meet the 2017 target. It would eventually strip the Pentagon’s ability to transfer funds between its accounts, a process dubbed “reprogramming.”
The legislation, which is also backed by Democratic White House hopeful Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Senate Budget Committee chair Mike Enzi (R-WY), would reward the Pentagon if it met the fiscal goal, including granting it greater ability to reprogram funds.
But after the SIGAR report, it’s clear the Pentagon faces a deeply skeptical audience.
In his letter, Wyden said the watchdog’s “most disturbing findings … concern the DOD’s behavior,” noting the department’s “baffling” claim that no one at the agency has any knowledge of the task force, even though it was dissolved less than a year ago.
“More disturbing still, the SIGAR clearly stated that its review ‘was hindered by DOD’s lack of cooperation’ and paints a picture of a department restricting access and failing to deliver on commitments,” he added.
“Several of my colleagues have already publicly committed to plumbing this report and its disturbing conclusions. I will wholeheartedly assist them in those efforts,” said Wyden.