Nelson: MacDill unit hid millions
The senator says the Pentagon used the Special Operations Command to create a $20-million slush fund.
By PAUL DE LA GARZA
Published September 28, 2005
TAMPA - The Special Operations Command hid $20-million from Congress three years ago at the request of the Pentagon, Sen. Bill Nelson confirmed Tuesday as he demanded an investigation by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The Florida Democrat, who has monitored the case as a member of the committee, said the Pentagon, "with SOCom's complicity, created a slush fund from which to draw funds for purposes and in amounts that they intended to hide from the Congress and the people."
SOCom is based at MacDill Air Force Base and oversees the nation's secret commandos.
The Pentagon inspector general just completed a two-year investigation and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa did not file charges. A second case, involving $25-million in hidden funds at SOCom, was not mentioned in the Pentagon report.
Because the Pentagon has declined to release the report, Nelson's comments were the first to shed light on the findings of the investigation.
He said nobody from the Pentagon, the Justice Department, budget experts in Congress and in the private sector "would render a legal opinion regarding the practice" of hiding funds from Congress.
In a letter to Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and ranking member Sen. Carl Levin, D-Michigan, Nelson seemed incredulous at that.
"The fundamental issue appears that the Defense Department believes it is not only legal but accepted practice to operate using slush funds that deceive the Congress," Nelson wrote. "Indications from the IG report are that the practice is widespread, condoned and even encouraged up and down the levels of management within the DOD."
Nelson asked the committee to initiate its own investigation, hold hearings to assess the scope of the problem, and consider necessary changes to the law "that will ensure that the Congress and the people get an honest budget request."
But Rep. C.W. Bill Young, chairman of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, offered a different take on the investigation.
"I'd like to read the report that (Nelson) read," the Indian Shores Republican said. "I don't read anything like this in this IG report."
Young said he could not discuss specifics of the report because it was marked "law enforcement sensitive." However, he said his own investigators discovered that SOCom spent $15-million on the programs it asked Congress to fund. The other $5-million is unaccounted for.
Young said it was possible SOCom decided to spend the money as it was appropriated by Congress after the St. Petersburg Times called attention to the hidden funds in fall 2003.
Young said Pentagon comptroller Tina Jonas assured him hiding funds from Congress is not tolerated. Jonas, the FBI's former comptroller, arrived at the Pentagon after the various investigations began.
"It's not her policy, and anybody who did this on their own, if she found out about it, they would be terminated," Young said.
Young said he would look into the second case of hidden funds at SOCom. He also said he saw no reason to keep the report secret. He said the report was full of errors.
The Pentagon inspector general and SOCom declined to discuss specifics of the case.
In a statement last week, Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown, SOCom commander, said he was satisfied "that the appropriate government agencies have thoroughly examined the facts involved."
"At SOCom," Brown said, "we will continue to be vigilant and take the appropriate actions to ensure we are following all required governmental rules and procedures."
Steve Cole, U.S. attorney spokesman, said: "After a vigorous and thorough investigation we have determined, on the basis of the facts discovered to date, that no criminal prosecution is warranted." He declined further comment.
Federal prosecutors say deciding whether to file charges generally boils down to criminal intent.
In an interview Tuesday, Nelson said federal law requires that Congress determine how the money is spent.
The Anti-Deficiency Act says money appropriated by Congress can be used only for the purpose authorized by Congress.
There are other federal laws and regulations that prohibit submitting fraudulent budget documents to Congress.
"If there are efforts to get around that by the U.S. military, then that's got to be stopped," Nelson said. "It's our duty to be accountable to the American taxpayer."
Keith Ashdown, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, has been monitoring the case from the beginning and was outraged the Pentagon was "getting a pass on accountability."
"You can't treat the Congress like they're a bunch of buzzing flies around your head," Ashdown said. "They're your bosses because they represent the American taxpayers."
The Department of Defense oversaw more than $400-billion in spending in 2005.
Three years ago, according to documents obtained by the Times, SOCom "parked" - or hid - $20-million from Congress by inflating its 2002-2003 budget at the request of the Pentagon comptroller. Another $25-million was hidden in the SOCom budget the following year.
Special Operations officials divided the $20-million among six projects so the money would not attract attention.
They also instructed their budget analysts not to mention it during briefings with congressional aides.
The agreement was spelled out in an e-mail distributed by then-SOCom comptroller Elaine Kingston to colleagues on Feb. 11, 2002. The Pentagon initially wanted SOCom to hide $40-million, but Kingston refused.
In her e-mail, Kingston coached colleagues on how to account for the additional money and avoid attracting attention to it in congressional briefings.
Kingston began her e-mail by assuring colleagues that the request by the Pentagon was not unusual.
--Paul de la Garza can be reached at email@example.com or 813-226-3432.