Washington Babylon — May 7, 2007, 10:41 am

SIGIR Roast

I reported last week that Stuart Bowen Jr., the U.S. Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), who has issued reports about the misuse of Iraqi reconstruction funds, is now under investigation himself for allegedly misspending taxpayer money. Some bloggers are wondering out loud whether the Special Inspector is the target of a campaign by the Bush Administration to silence its critics. The New York Times has raised the same possibility, saying in a May 4 story, “A federal official whose investigations of waste and corruption in Iraq have repeatedly embarrassed the Bush Administration is now being investigated himself by an oversight committee with close links to the White House.”

I can understand why people are suspicious that the administration is behind the charges against Bowen–Bush does, after all, have a lengthy record of attacking his perceived enemies, as the current U.S. attorney scandal well illustrates–but in this case the allegation makes no sense.

For those unfamiliar with Bowen, back in 2004, the year he was appointed as SIGIR, the American Prospect described him as:

a Texas lawyer with longtime ties to President Bush. Before being appointed Inspector General, Bowen worked directly for the President for eight years–most recently as a White House legal counselor, and before that in the Texas governor’s office.

The Prospect said Bowen had “displayed a penchant for placing ideology and political loyalty above independent analysis,” and noted that Bowen’s services in Texas included making flagrantly dishonest arguments against death row reprieves.

So Bowen is an unlikely hero for those who are now thrusting him forward as a victim of the Bush Administration. Now, however, the argument goes that whatever Bowen’s origins, SIGIR put out a series of damning reports during his tenure, which embarrassed the administration and led it to retaliate against him. There’s some truth to the first part of that statement, but that doesn’t make the second part accurate.

People familiar with the story tell me that a group of SIGIR auditors in Iraq raised the first complaints against Bowen back in mid-2004. One problem was that Bowen rarely turned up for work. Instead, he spent as many as four days a week in his trailer, where he’d have staffers deliver his meals. Work meetings set up for Bowen were repeatedly canceled, because he claimed he wasn’t feeling well. Yet I’m told he never sought medical help, never took sick leave, and always billed the government for full-time services.

A steady stream of other complaints ensued from SIGIR employees in Iraq and Crystal City, Virginia, the U.S. headquarters for the Special Inspector. The most serious allegation, as I noted the other day, is that Bowen may have violated waste and fraud rules in commissioning a glossy, expensive history of the SIGIR. Other complaints included cronyism and retribution and wrongful termination of people who ran afoul of Bowen.

The current investigation was triggered when six former SIGIR employees filed a complaint in February 2006 with the President’s Council on Integrity and Efficiency, which polices Inspectors General offices. Thus the origins of the case are not political pressure from the White House, but action by whistleblowers. And I’m confident that these whistleblowers are not a cabal of Republicans doing the administration’s bidding. I’d also note here that while the SIGIR reports are politically embarrassing, the general news out of Iraq is so relentlessly negative that it’s hard to imagine at this point that Bowen’s work is a chief concern to the administration.

Bowen has done some good work at SIGIR, but that doesn’t win him a pass if he in fact has been a no-show at work, falsely billed the government for his time, and has blown large sums of taxpayer money on a frivolous book project (that perhaps not incidentally will serve to build his public stature, which will be helpful if he decides, as rumored, to launch a political career). Do the charges against Bowen, if accurate, amount to the biggest scandal of the Bush years? Hardly. But the complaints from the whistleblowers certainly merit investigation.

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