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Nelson: Investigate secret money

The senator calls for a probe into the way the Special Operations Command adjusted its budget proposal last year.

By PAUL DE LA GARZA, Times Staff Writer
Published September 30, 2003

 
"I think we've got to get to the bottom of it,'' Sen. Bill Nelson said.

TAMPA - Sen. Bill Nelson has requested two investigations into how the U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base inflated budget numbers at the Pentagon's request to hide $20-million from Congress.

"It raises serious questions of the proper use of taxpayers' money," Nelson, a Florida Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in an interview Monday. "This is of considerable interest to me and to the Congress."

Nelson said he asked the Senate Armed Services Committee and the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to examine the way Special Operations adjusted its budget proposal last year.

Nelson said he planned to meet with Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the committee, on Monday night to discuss his request.

"I think we've got to get to the bottom of it," he said.

The St. Petersburg Times reported Sunday that Special Operations officials at MacDill inflated budget proposals at the request of the Pentagon for fiscal year 2003, which ends today.

The money was divided among six projects so it would not attract attention, according to documents obtained by the Times.

Special Operations officials also instructed their own budget analysts not to mention the inflated figures during briefings with congressional aides, the documents show.

Col. Jay DeFrank, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on Nelson's request for the congressional investigations.

"The Department of Defense wants to thoroughly look into this situation and understand what happened," DeFrank said, "because it's clearly not our policy to handle funds in any inappropriate manner."

The Pentagon's inspector general has launched a preliminary inquiry, which the Pentagon said could take months to complete.

House Appropriations Chairman C.W. Bill Young, R-Largo, said he will ask Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld during a hearing today whether the Pentagon intentionally deceived Congress.

Like Young, Nelson said his big concern was that if all the services are hiding money from Congress, the amount could grow significantly.

The Pentagon investigation centers on an agreement between the Pentagon comptroller's office in Washington and the Special Operations Command comptroller at MacDill.

The plan, according to defense officials and base documents, called for Special Operations to pad its proposed budget by $20-million so the money could be used later by the Pentagon for some other purpose.

It is unclear what the Pentagon intended to do with the $20-million, or what became of the money. Young surmised that the money could have been used as a contingency fund, available to Rumsfeld to use at his discretion.

The agreement between the Pentagon officials in Washington and Special Operations officials in Tampa, who oversee the nation's secret commandos, is spelled out in an e-mail distributed by SOCom comptroller Elaine Kingston to colleagues on Feb. 11, 2002.

Young said he did not know if "parking" money as described in the Special Operations e-mail is common throughout the Department of Defense.

Kingston began her e-mail by assuring colleagues that the request by the Pentagon comptroller was not unusual.

"It is common practice for OSD comptroller to keep small withholds of funds in each appropriation to cover pop up emergencies throughout the year of execution," she wrote. "So OSD goes out to all of the services and (defensewide) agencies to ask for help in justifying these dollars against existing programs in the budget."

The General Accounting Office said it was not familiar with the practice outlined by Kingston.

The Anti-Deficiency Act says money appropriated by Congress can only be used for the purpose authorized by Congress. There are other federal laws and regulations that prohibit submitting fraudulent budget documents to Congress.

- Paul de la Garza can be reached at 813 226-3432, or at delagarza@sptimes.com


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