Daniel Schulman

Senior Editor

Based in DC, Dan covers politics and national security. His work has appeared in the Boston Globe Magazine, the Village Voice, the Columbia Journalism Review, and other publications. He is the author of a forthcoming biography of the Koch family, Sons of Wichita, which will be published in May by the Hachette Book Group. Email him at dschulman (at) motherjones.com.

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Afghanistan's Development Debacle

| Wed Jan. 13, 2010 5:00 AM PST

Over the years, the US and its international partners have directed an impressive amount of development funding to Afghanistan. Not so impressive: their efforts to ensure billions in aid is actually reaching the intended targets. Afghanistan's foreign minister, Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, once estimated that only about $10 or $20 out of every $100 in US development assistance ends up filtering down to the communities it was meant for. Where does the rest go? Some is eaten up by unwieldy chains of contractors and subcontractors, which take their cut and pass the work on until there is little money left to actually complete the projects they were hired to carry out. Some is siphoned off by corrupt officials and contractors. Some—well, we're not entirely sure where it went. Meanwhile, Afghans have complained bitterly about the state of development efforts. In some cases, the promised aid simply hasn't materialized—or, if it has, the result has been shoddily constructed (yet high-priced) projects that are basically useless.

Along with an influx of troops, the Obama administration is planning a surge of civilian personnel and funding to address Afghanistan's formidable development challenges. That's the good news. Here's the bad: part of this effort will likely be overseen and coordinated by a UN division that has been plagued by allegations of waste and mismanagement and the US development agency that has turned a blind eye to its transgressions.

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Sessions Preaches Accountability While Dodging It

| Tue Dec. 29, 2009 9:18 AM PST

Yesterday, as Pete Sessions' office was heroically trying to spin his "love" note to alleged Ponzi schemer Allen Stanford as an effort to "prevent further tragedy," the Texas Republican, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, blasted out a fundraising appeal to his mailing list. As my colleague David Corn notes over at Politics Daily, the message, laced with harsh rhetoric, slammed "Nancy Pelosi, Barack Obama, and their allies" for putting the country "on a dangerous path toward bankruptcy and strict government control." He added: "Fortunately 2010 offers us a chance to hold the far left accountable and elect Representatives who will stand up for our American values in Congress." The irony, of course, is that while Sessions was preaching accountability he was simultaneously working to avoid it—concocting a pretty weak excuse for why, on the same day the feds accused Stanford of perpetrating a multi-billion dollar swindle, he emailed the following note of encouragement to the disgraced financier: "I love you and believe in you. If you want my ear/voice -- e-mail." As the Miami Herald has reported, this message is now in the hands of federal investigators who are exploring whether congressional lawmakers, including Sessions, did favors for Stanford in exchange for campaign cash and other perks.

Also ensnared in this probe is Gregory Meeks, the New York Democrat, who, according to the Herald, appealed to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Stanford's behalf. Here's the backstory:

The president of his bank in Venezuela had turned on Stanford after being accused of stealing from the company, filing a lawsuit and publicly questioning whether Stanford was orchestrating a fraud.

Enraged at his former executive, Stanford placed a call in March 2006 to Democratic House member Gregory Meeks with a rare request: Go to President Hugo Chávez and seek a criminal investigation of Gonzalo Tirado.

Meeks, a member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, agreed to carry the message, according to two former U.S. federal agents working for Stanford who were listening to the call on speakerphone.

The politician would travel to Venezuela a month later for a series of meetings with Chávez and other leaders. A year after that visit, Venezuelan prosecutors indicted Tirado on charges of swindling and tax-evasion.

According to the Daily News, Meeks "sometimes accompanied by his wife...took six trips to sun-drenched locales from Antigua to St. Lucia, courtesy of a Stanford nonprofit called the Inter-American Economic Council." Since 2003, the organization spent more than $20,000 on the Meeks' travel, putting them up in such lux accommodations as the Ritz Carleton in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Meeks has yet to speak to these latest charges. If and when he does, don't be too suprised if he has a creative excuse, à la Pete Sessions, for his close ties and suspicous interactions with the man accused of bilking investors of some $8 billion. 

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Sessions to Stanford: "I Love You..."

| Mon Dec. 28, 2009 11:03 AM PST

Last February, the office of Rep. Pete Sessions initially claimed the congressman wasn't personally acquainted with alleged Ponzi schemer Allen Stanford, who'd donated generously to the Texas Republican's campaign over the years. Then pictures surfaced of Sessions with Stanford during a junket to Antigua in 2005. But how close were the pair really? Close enough for Sessions to use the L-word in an email he sent Stanford on February 17, 2009, hours after US Marshals raided Stanford Financial's Houston headquarters and the SEC charged the financier with bilking investors of some $8 billion. "I love you and believe in you," Sessions wrote, according to the Miami Herald. "If you want my ear/voice -- e-mail."

The disclosure of this sympathetic missive—which appears to suggest Sessions was willing to use his influential "voice" on Stanford's behalf—suggests that Sessions, along with other members of Congress, could be in for an unpleasant 2010. The Herald reports:

The message from the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee represents one of the many ties between members of Congress and the indicted banker that have caught the attention of federal agents.

The Justice Department is investigating millions of dollars Stanford and his staff contributed to lawmakers over the past decade to determine if the banker received special favors from politicians while building his spectacular offshore bank in Antigua, The Miami Herald has learned.

Agents are examining campaign dollars, as well as lavish Caribbean trips funded by Stanford for politicians and their spouses, feting them with lobster dinners and caviar.

For Sessions, this isn't the first time his ties to unsavory characters has been called into question. In 2006, the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a Justice Department complaint against Sessions accusing him of doing favors for the clients of lobbyist Jack Abramoff in exchange for donations to his political action committee, Pete PAC.

UPDATE: Sessions' office has provided TPMMuckraker with the following statement regarding his email to Stanford:

From the government that knighted him to Barack Obama and John McCain, Allen Stanford had everyone fooled, and as Mr. Stanford's scheme has become clear Congressman Sessions has worked to ensure that the investors Mr. Stanford swindled receive the justice they deserve - including signing a letter to the SEC requesting SIPC coverage for the victims.

While the referenced email cannot be authenticated, Congressman Sessions believes that its contents resemble language he would use to communicate with a person in crisis to encourage right decisions and prevent further tragedy.

With that being said, the Congressman maintains the position that Mr. Stanford should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Bravo. This heroic attempt at spin should really win some kind of award.

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ArmorGroup Loses Kabul Embassy Contract

| Tue Dec. 8, 2009 1:00 PM PST

The Animal House antics of ArmorGroup North America's guards have cost the company its 5-year, $189 million State Department contract to protect the US embassy in Kabul. Following a months-long review, the agency has decided it won't renew the contract, as it has done for the past two years, when it comes due in June, according to State Department spokesman Fred Lash. "The department's Office of Aquisitions Managment, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and Embassy Kabul reviewed the contract and concurred that the next option year should not be excercised and that work should begin immediately to compete a new contract," Lash told me.

This turn of events won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who's viewed the lewd pictures of the company's personnel engaged in all manner of bacchanalian behavior. But the real question is why it took an international incident for the State Department to remove AGNA from the embassy job in the first place. Serious complaints about AGNA's performance emerged almost as soon as the company took over security at the embassy in the summer of 2007. That July, the State Department sent the first of at least nine warnings to the company, this one noting that "deficiencies" in AGNA's work were of such magnitude that "the security of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul is in jeopardy." For nearly two years, the agency continued to warn ANGA repeatedly about its performance and even threatened to replace the company, yet twice renewed the contract. Worse still, according to a lawsuit filed by AGNA's former director of operations, James Gordon, the State Department was alerted way back in June 2007 that AGNA recruits were engaging in the very same variety of "lewd, aberrant, and sexually deviant behavior" that ultimately ended up embarassing the Obama adminstration in September, after the Project on Government Oversight exposed a pattern of misconduct and performance lapses by the company in a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"The State Department seems to be holding this Embassy security contractor accountable,” POGO's executive director, Danielle Brian, said in a statement. “But State will need a real culture change before it can provide adequate oversight of these complex and challenging contracts.”

ArmorGroup employees were informed of the State Department's decision on Monday in an email that was obtained by POGO and written by Frank Schaddellee, the deputy project manager at Camp Sullivan, where ArmorGroup's personnel live (and, prior to the embassy scandal, held wild parties). "Changing out contractors is primarily a political decision based on the unfortunate and embarrassing events that occurred here several months ago," Schaddelee wrote. "There are serious consequences when things like that happen."

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