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FBI takes a look at SOCom allegations

A special operations general is at the center of a contracting corruption investigation.

By PAUL DE LA GARZA
Published November 3, 2005


TAMPA - In a widening criminal investigation at U.S. Special Operations Command, the FBI confirmed Wednesday it is looking into allegations of corruption in defense contracting.

"We're interested in any allegations of wrongdoing at SOCom," FBI Agent Tim Gorman said.

Until now, a week-old preliminary inquiry into contracting and the SOCom commander, Army Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown, had been conducted by the Pentagon inspector general, the agency's investigative arm.

Federal officials say FBI involvement in the case bolsters the investigation by providing military investigators with additional resources such as computer forensics experts and analysts.

Gorman said the FBI also is looking into a separate bribery case at SOCom, based at MacDill Air Force Base. A private contractor already has pleaded guilty in that case and has agreed to cooperate with investigators.

The allegations about Brown were included in an anonymous letter addressed to the Pentagon inspector general and mailed to the St. Petersburg Times last week. It alleged that Brown directed lucrative contracts to friends and former SOCom commanders, violated federal spending laws and interfered with internal investigations to protect associates.

Brown has characterized the allegations as baseless and an attempt to distract attention from another criminal investigation at SOCom, which oversees the nation's elite commandos and is orchestrating the global war on terror.

SOCom already is the subject of federal investigations into the bribery scandal and charges that it hid $20-million from Congress during the budget process three years ago.

In an e-mail to the Times on Wednesday, spokesman Col. Samuel Taylor said SOCom had not been contacted by the FBI. He urged the newspaper to share the anonymous letter with federal agents.

"I believe they will reach the same conclusion that I have - the letter lacks credibility," Taylor said. "The allegations made in this letter were written by someone who refused to identify him or herself and provided nothing that would validate any of the charges. Therefore, their motives must be called into question."

The letter named several SOCom employees and suggested that investigators should talk to them. Dated Oct. 19, the letter was signed "A few former and present USSOCOM Employees."

Gorman, the FBI agent, requested the letter sent to the Times, hoping to determine who wrote it. The newspaper declined to turn it over.

The letter cited examples of "conflicts of interest, preferential treatment and undue command influence by Gen. Bryan "Doug' Brown with former retired general officers with which he served and other officers that served for him."

The letter named two former SOCom commanders, Army Gen. Wayne Downing and Air Force Gen. Charles Holland, both retired, as having benefited financially from their relationship with Brown.

According to the allegations, Holland, as SOCom commander, awarded $10-million in business to AeroVironment, which manufactures unmanned vehicles, or UAVs. Holland later went to work for the company, whose name was misspelled in the anonymous letter.

"Gen. Brown directed a UAV Program Office be formed at USSOCOM to make it easier for his buddy, Gen. Holland, to do business at USSOCOM," the letter said.

Ted Wierzbanowski, a spokesman for AeroVironment, confirmed Holland was on the company's board of directors.

In a statement late Wednesday, Wierzbanowski said AeroVironment follows "standard government guidelines and procedures before hiring any former military personnel as an employee or consultant."

He also said AeroVironment "does not respond to baseless allegations or accusations made in anonymous letters."

"If a formal investigation does occur as a result of such a letter, AeroVironment has full confidence the investigators will conclude that the company, its employees and consultants have complied with all statutes and regulations governing the situation."

Last week, the Army selected AeroVironment's Raven B as the Army's future Small Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, a program valued at $322-million. According to published reports, the Army will act as SOCom's procuring agent for the equipment.

Holland did not respond to several messages seeking comment.

In a separate allegation, the letter said Downing benefited from a $50-million SOCom contract to "Nevada Sierra Corporation," and said Downing served on the company's board of directors.

A public records search of the Sierra Nevada Corp., a defense electronics engineering and manufacturing firm, did not include Downing on the board. The company did not respond to a message seeking comment, and Downing could not be located.

Three weeks ago, after the Pentagon raised questions about SOCom's ability to wage the war on terror, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appointed Downing to conduct an independent assessment.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Rumsfeld had no intention of replacing Downing.

"I think it best to let the (inspector general) look into these allegations before anyone jumps to any conclusions," Whitman said.

Taylor, the SOCom spokesman, stressed Brown, Holland and Downing have long histories of distinguished service to the country.

Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Paul de la Garza can be reached at delagarza@sptimes.com or 813 226-3432.