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The Cowboys of Kabul

How a pair of bankrupt Texas grandparents cashed in on Afghanistan's contracting bonanza.

| Mon Jul. 27, 2009 4:00 AM EDT

Guarding USPI's Interests: "You Just Didn't Mess With Their Contract"

In September 2005, one of USPI's American employees did shoot an Afghan in the head—a 37-year-old named Noor Ahmed who worked for the firm as a translator. Although the incident landed the company briefly in the news, the identity of the shooter has never been previously reported. Two former USPI employees told me it was an ex-Marine named Todd Rhodes. (Rhodes was killed in Iraq in August 2006 while working for the private security firm Cochise.) The former USPI supervisor insisted the shooting was justified, that Ahmed "drew down into a firing position on him and Todd shot him in self-defense." Yet questions remain about the shooting and whether it was fully investigated. While the ex-USPI supervisor says Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior "did a quick investigation" and cleared Rhodes of wrongdoing, the company spirited him out of the country before a formal probe could be launched. The provincial police chief has said he sent a team to USPI's compound to investigate but was barred from entering by the company's guards.

The incident only fueled Appleton's concerns. He decided to see about severing USPI's relationship with UNOPS—its contract was due to expire later that summer anyway. USPI could rebid for the work, but Appleton was determined to find the company best equipped to keep contractors safe. In the end, he says, "USAID balked," convincing him that UNOPS should extend the contract for another three months while the security situation was reviewed. (USAID did not respond to a detailed request for comment.)

"All the while we were getting smoked out there in terms of casualties and fatalities on the roads project," Appleton says. "I don't think anyone's ever come clean with what the numbers were. We had more casualties than US soldiers in Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006. We were getting creamed. We had international security coordinators with USPI getting beheaded. We had Turkish contractors getting wiped out. We had Afghan security guys in the employ of USPI getting smoked. It got so bad that I led a group with LBG to contact the US Embassy to say, 'You've got to better arm us because we're getting creamed out there.'" He adds, "USPI had adopted a real cowboy approach with regards to, 'Bring 'em on. We'll create the peace by simply killing enough of them.'"

Appleton tried again to cancel the contract. Eventually several security companies, including Aegis, a well-regarded British firm, were approached about taking over the task. But before very long, Berger resisted.

In June 2006 Fred Chace, then Berger's deputy operations manager in Afghanistan, sent Appleton a memo recommending against removing USPI from the project. Chace Memo(Mother Jones obtained a copy, and Appleton confirmed its authenticity.) The memo ("Subject: USPI Termination") lays out myriad criticisms of the company's work. "Over the course of the project, USPI has continued to be non-responsive to the needs of the Employer," Chace wrote. "The primary complaint with USPI is the failure of their Kabul management to support their field security advisors and to comply with the requirements of UNOPS in regard to reporting and other administrative functions…UNOPS has also expressed its concerns over the ability of USPI to assure that their security force has a sufficient supply of ammunition to fight off any attack on the projects."

Chace also noted that "one of the criticisms of USPI has been their ragtag MOI soldiers," but raised concerns about cutting off the warlords that USPI was dealing with. "Considering the probable flow of the money, it would be a security risk to the project…if they did anything that disrupted that flow of money," he explained, adding that for this reason Aegis had also proposed using MOI guards, as well as members of the Afghan National Police. Chace, who declined an interview request, acknowledged in the memo that Aegis "is an experienced and qualified firm. There is no doubt about that." But, he concluded, "It does not appear that there is any economic benefit to changing security providers; in fact it could cost the program up to $900K more…We are not convinced that this transition could be made without any initial impacts that could jeopardize the security of the staff and result in further damages by the possible suspension of the work due to a decrease in security until Aegis is up to force."

Appleton had hit a brick wall. He was puzzled. "It was just a mom-and-pop organization out of Texas," he says. "These guys were amateurs. It just didn't make any sense."

But Appleton believes he finally discovered why Berger officials were so reluctant to tamper with USPI's contract—and why Del Spier and his company may have landed the work in the first place. Once, Appleton asked Berger officials why USPI was hired. "The answer I got back was that Jim Myers and Del go way back," he says. Myers was the engineer in charge of Berger's Afghanistan operation, and the official who worked most closely with USPI. "Jim Myers was a 100 percent supporter of USPI and Del," explains the former Berger official. "He wouldn't accept criticisms of them. Certainly, he would never have entertained—ever, ever—removing USPI. Ever, despite anything. You just didn't mess with their contract." He continues, "It was just understood that there must have been a relationship between USPI and somebody in Berger, or Jim. That was just the way it was. That was the only logical reason why that would be in place...It was a relationship issue."

Other sources told me that Myers and Del Spier had a long-standing friendship. "It was all very incestuous," says an ex-USPI employee. Confirms the former supervisor, "They have a very close relationship."

(When I reached Myers, who retired in 2007, at his home in Northport, Washington, he repeatedly denied having any history with USPI's founders. Moreover, he insisted that his relationship with Del was "no more friendly than with any other subcontractor. I worked with all of them.")

"How far back it went into the halls of LBG, I don't know," says Appleton. "But the running joke in Kabul when Del and Barbara Spier got arrested was that all the executive officers' doors at LBG were slamming shut." It appears that Del and Barbara are chummy with other Berger honchos, too. Just last February, Fred Berger, the chairman of the Louis Berger Group, attended a fundraiser in Houston for the American University of Afghanistan, of which he's a founding trustee. Also in attendance were the Spiers, and Berger made a point of introducing his guest to Del and Barbara. (The Louis Berger Group did not respond to a detailed request for comment, citing the ongoing criminal case.)

Even some of the company's own employees wondered why USPI had been trusted to protect hundreds of millions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects, and the lives of the men and women building them. "In terms of how they got in, it didn't make any sense," the former USPI security coordinator recalls. He says he at first "figured they were pretty well established. It wasn't until I went online and googled them and saw their website looked like something an 8 year-old made on Microsoft Front Page that I was like, 'What is going on?' That just kind of blew me away. But I figured, 'Well, they got these contracts for some reason.'"

Appleton places part of the blame with USAID for allowing Berger to hire USPI in the first place. "Why USAID would even want to do that when there was so much at stake is mind-boggling." I asked Patrick Fine, the former USAID official (who, like Appleton, inherited USPI's services), why the firm had been allowed to take on such a critical task. He responded by describing the strain of operating in post-invasion Afghanistan. "People just don't understand unless you've lived through it the kind of pressure to deliver results," he told me. "In this case to get that road built under difficult circumstances in a very short timeframe. Expediency becomes the driving force."

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