Another week has passed and it was filled with a lot of excitement and action. It’s actually Friday today and this is the first day that I have not worked straight through since I touched down on March 15th. I’m just kind of slumming and hanging around. The temperature is in the low 100’s so it’s basically too hot to do anything else outside. I think I’ll go back to the hooch and take a nap later.
I hope everyone had a wonderful Easter. Ours was pretty much the same old except the Church services were really good. We started off with Holy Thursday and Father Dennis actually washed the feet of 12 people during mass. You know I’ve participated in this ceremony back home but it’s really more meaningful when you’re in this dusty dirty environment. What a sign of humility. He was also joined by Father Dave, a military chaplain, who’s from Australia. He’s got a really neat accent. The Fijian choir joined us for Easter Sunday. I really do love their harmonizing. I was able to speak with my Dad for the first time in about one month since his stroke. It was just good to hear his voice.
This week I also experienced a morning dust storm followed by afternoon rain showers. I never thought I would ever see it rain dirt but it did. We were driving to another compound and the rain was coming down in buckets except it was full of dirt as well. We had to constantly use the cleaning solution with the wiper blades. It was amazing. You know what it’s like when your windshield is dusty and then you turn your wipers on and it smears the dirt? That’s exactly what it was like with the rain. We had to walk in the rain and my satchel is still full of dust marks from where the drops evaporated. My clothes had to go in the wash as they got filthy.
One of our auditors about my age started experiencing chest pains. He went to the CSH and three different doctors told him --- you’re going home…..now!! They didn’t even bother to check him out routinely. They just medi-vac’ed him straight out on a medical Blackhawk. Apparently he had a heart condition from before. I couldn’t imagine taking the risk of coming here with a heart condition but he did. The CSH is simply not set up to handle things like that.
We had a problem this week with one of our Iraqi cleaners. The office next door belongs to Homeland Security and right after the cleaners came through, one of the DHS agents was missing a thumb drive. The cleaners were rounded up to be questioned and one dashed to the bathroom and flushed the commode. The State Department Security Team was able to get a plumber who retrieved the stolen thumb drive. The cleaner was questioned thoroughly and then immediately terminated. I felt pretty bad as this guy has been working here for about 3 years but we just can’t take chances. It’s just too much risk. His story was that thumb drives bring a high price on the open market in the Red Zone. I’d like to believe that but he may also be trying to get information. We’ll probably never know the full story as his family could have been threatened if he didn’t comply, he may need the money, or he could be part of AQI trying to figure out the right time to wear an explosive vest, who knows? It’s just sad but interesting that he’s the same one who wanted to borrow my camera and I wouldn’t let him. You just can’t be too careful.
Last Friday I and another agent decided to participate in something that is called the Harrier Hash Run. I guess this running organization is world wide. You actually follow trails set by “Hares” some of which lead to dead ends, circles, etc. One of our agents who had heard of this group warned us that these guys and gals were “drinkers with running problems.” Interestingly enough he was so right. The run was fine but I’m really not in the mood to have beer half way through a 4 mile run. I would have preferred to keep going but they do break for about 20 minutes so I had water instead. It was interesting in that I’ve never participated in a run before where the spectators (the local Iraqi guards and police) cheering us on all carried AK-47s. It was a little surreal and they probably think we’re nuts anyway. Two other things that I didn’t care for was that by the time we were half way through the run, it was totally dark. There still is a lot of traffic at that time in the IZ and the potential for an accident increases greatly. At the end, there was more beer offered and you had a lot of middle age people acting like they were at a frat party at college. Maybe I’m just getting older and I think I still like to have fun, but my days of singing silly songs and pouring beer on myself are over and have been for quite some time. I might do the run again only because it’s good training for the upcoming 10 mile race that I’m going to try. However, I think I’ll just continue to drink water during the break and when the run is complete I’ll just leave it at that and go shower up at the hooch. I’ll also carry a flashlight with me as well next time.
One of the auditors that I had met from USAID (US Agency for International Development) had an open house on Saturday for Easter. She really is a gracious hostess so we brought some liquor and wine. The USAID people actually are housed in these fortified condo’s. They are blast proof and are quite spacious. There’s a kitchen and living room area, private bath and laundry room and a bedroom with a real bed. These units are all furnished including cooking utensils, entertainment centers etc. I’ll try to get some pictures. I mean the USAID people live really well here and I can understand why they are reticent to leave. Katie (our hostess) apparently has made contacts with a caterer in the Green Zone and is able to get some great quality food. She served a ham that was just fabulous. Now I think most people know that I’m not a huge fan of ham and I’ll eat a honey baked ham but it’s not high on my list. This ham was just delectable. It was tender and not overly salty. One of the other USAID people is from Australia and he had several bottles of Jacob’s Creek Cabernet. I informed him that I had tried Jacob’s Creek Merlot when I was in Washington, D.C. and found it to be very nice. He asked what I had paid for it and as I recall it was about $8-$9 per bottle. He said that was about the same in Australia which surprised me. Of course there’s probably a tax thrown in on that as well. We each enjoyed a glass together. He handed me one and said “Cheers Mate!” It’s really worth a try if you can find it. Also, I think I’ve said this before but if anyone is looking for an overseas experience, go to the USAID web site and search for jobs. Now you’re not going to find jobs in Western Europe, Canada, Australia, etc. They are going to be in developing nations primarily war torn or impoverished or both. However, you are taken care of, the salary is good, the experience is invaluable, and you’ll meet people from all over the world. I met two people from Bosnia and Zimbabwe at Katie’s party.
Had a rather unique experience the day before yesterday at the Palace. I was walking down the hall to the office where the SIGIR inspectors are housed and I noticed this soldier off my left shoulder. At the time I looked at him he was working the action of his Beretta 92F, de-cocking and holstering it. Now a semi automatic pistol when empty makes kind of a clanging sound when the action is worked on an empty weapon. When the action is accepting a round from a magazine, the sound is a little deeper. I was reasonably certain the weapon was unloaded and the fact that the soldier was holstering it did not give me cause for alarm. It did stop me for a second and he had my full attention. It could be that he may have dropped it from his holster just before we encountered each other. Frankly, I’ve seen more weapons dropped here in the 11 months that I’ve been here than I saw throughout my entire 28 +year career with IRS-CID. Actually, a civilian had a Glock fall from a shoulder holster during Easter Mass on Sunday. I think why this happens stems from the reticence of personnel to carry the weapon on the hip as a shoulder holster is more comfortable and convenient for them. This is especially true with the military. With the military BDU, you either have to wear the thing on a webbed belt outside the BDU blouse or it constantly is going to tug at the blouse. It’s not the same as wearing a hip holster with a sports jacket as one typically doesn’t button it up. The blouse is required to be buttoned. The only other option is a leg holster or shoulder rig. The problem is that the rigs these guys are buying are pretty cheap and they don’t hold the weapon in securely. The only saving grace is that the weapon cannot fire unless the trigger is pulled and no one can carry a hot weapon except for law enforcement personnel (like my unit). I really haven’t seen any law enforcement officers use a shoulder rig at all. Most use a leg holster (like mine) only when travel is required with helmet and vest. There is a holster that attaches securely to the outside of the protective vest when one needs a vest on so that is an option as well.
I don’t know if I mentioned before but I ran into an IRS CID agent who was a rookie agent in the Oxnard Office when I was supervising in San Jose. We knew each other from training courses and case interaction and he was becoming a really good special agent. He had transferred to Colorado and was detailed here to work on terrorist financing investigations. The IRS CID attaché who was here had just departed back for home and he was from Colorado as well. Apparently both know the new IRS CI attaché and wrote an e-mail to the new attaché introducing me as a retired IRS-CID supervisor. The only thing is that they added that they “thought I was one of the case agents on the Al Capone investigation.” Wise guys!!!
Well, I’ll close by including a news clip on a case that I did work on out here.
Businessman pleads guilty in Iraq scheme
WASHINGTON - With millions of dollars in Iraqi reconstruction contracts to be had, Philip H. Bloom offered up money, cars, premium airline seats, jewelry, alcohol, even sexual favors from women at his villa in Baghdad.
For a while, the kickback scheme worked. Bloom, a U.S. businessman who saw opportunity in Iraq, paid more than $2 million in bribes to U.S. officials who directed more than $8.6 million in contracts to companies he controlled.
After the inspector general for reconstruction projects began auditing contracts, the system crumbled.
Bloom is facing up to 40 years in prison and nearly $8 million in penalties after pleading guilty to conspiracy, bribery and money laundering, according to court documents made public Tuesday.
He is one of four people charged so far in a scheme that included the theft of $2 million in reconstruction money and the illegal purchase of machine guns and other weapons.
Robert J. Stein, a former contract official for the U.S.-led occupation forces in Iraq, pleaded guilty in February to his role in the scheme. Two lieutenant colonels in the U.S. Army Reserve also have been arrested, while three other officers have been implicated but not charged.
Bloom, who lived in Romania for many years, has been in custody since his arrest in November upon his return to the United States.
He secretly pleaded guilty in February and has been cooperating with investigators since. It was not clear why the plea was made public Tuesday. His lawyers did not immediately comment.
E-mails that prosecutors included in the court documents show that Bloom directed his employees to spare no expense in satisfying the officials who controlled contracts in the Coalition Provisional Authority's South Central region office in Hillah, about 50 miles south of Baghdad.
One official requested a blue Nissan 350Z sports car, which cost more than $30,000. "It appears that there are only two ... in the western United States," an employee wrote Bloom in June 2004.
In January 2004, Bloom ordered business-class plane tickets for an Army Reserve officer and his wife. "Very important to us ... I want to make sure its done right," Bloom wrote.
Bloom benefited from an elaborate bid-rigging scheme in which he would submit several bids for companies he controlled and others that did not exist. Some of the bids were high, while others were low.
All the bids came in under $500,000 each because that was the limit of Stein's authority to award a contract.
Bloom's companies won contracts for a police academy for Hillah and renovation of the public library near Karbala.
The criminal charges have their roots in audits performed by Inspector General Stuart W. Bowen Jr.
Thank God the majority of the people out here are hard working dedicated people. If they weren’t we’d have this type of headline each day or it would get to the point that it would be as commonplace as the weekend drunks or domestic arguments that police respond to back home.
Take care all and thanks for the e-mails. I really appreciate them. Best. Bob
PS: I’m attaching a copy of a photo taken with me and the Italian (Alpini Special Forces) Can you pick me out??? (Grin!!!)