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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

Fraudsters of the Reconstruction: "It's Endemic"

By now, things have come full circle for Del and Barbara Spier. They lifted themselves out of bankruptcy and struck it rich, only to wind up in jeopardy of losing everything once again. In February, the Justice Department filed a complaint seeking to seize the half-million dollar Hempstead, Texas, home the Spiers purchased in 2005 partly with proceeds from the alleged fraud scheme. Their passports have been taken away, and they must gain permission to leave the state of Texas. USPI wrapped up its last USAID subcontract this winter, shortly after the firm was placed on the federal government's Excluded Parties List. This designation precludes the company from receiving any government work pending the outcome of the criminal case, which goes to trial in late September. (The Spiers and their lawyers declined interview requests.)

But USPI remains very much active in Afghanistan, with the Spiers calling the shots from Texas. A recent visitor to Kabul told me of seeing USPI's guards posted at a variety of restaurants and local businesses. "As things are getting more dangerous, they're getting more business," says the former Marine who worked for USPI and who remains in touch with Del Spier. But Appleton, who now runs his own consulting firm focused on strengthening Afghan businesses, says the company is hardly the player it once was. "They're doing the rinky-dink jobs now, a restaurant here and there. They're not nearly as pervasive."

Though the Justice Department appears to have a strong case, some USPI alums remain fiercely loyal to their former employer. "Del Spier would have fired anyone in a heartbeat if he found out that anyone was ripping him off and ripping the government off," says the former USPI supervisor. "From what I know of Del, he tried to do an honest job over here." He blamed the charges on a "vendetta" by the lead USAID investigator in the case—which also appears to be part of the strategy the Spiers' attorneys are employing—while at the same time suggesting that Del's assistant, Behzad Mehr, may have "jury-rigged the numbers." He adds, "This is killing Del."

If the Spiers, along with Bill Dupre, are found guilty of fraud, it's likely their case represents one small chapter in a much larger story of reconstruction-related corruption in Afghanistan. Almost everyone I spoke with for this story told of a culture of graft so pervasive in the country that payoffs and kickbacks are considered part of doing business. "Any company over there, when you hire local Afghans, they're all on the take," Myers told me. "Every goddamn one of them. When you look at it in retrospect, you can't really blame them. Hell, they never made any money in their lives. So if they've got a chance to rip somebody off, they're going to do it."

It's not just the Afghans, of course. Amidst the chaos of war and insurgency, foreign contractors and others have surely siphoned off a share of the reconstruction money pouring into the country. Even members of the military have attempted to parlay the absence of oversight into a payday. In mid-June, two Army officers who served at Bagram Airfield pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and bribery for accepting kickbacks in exchange for steering work to contractors.

"It's just endemic," says the former Berger official, adding that many of these schemes were "hiding in plain sight." For instance, he says, he knows of people working on reconstruction projects who received several hundred thousand dollars in bribes from subcontractors. "They were the ones who had to sign off on the quantities, on the number of vehicles, on the invoicing," he says. "The contractor puts in a false invoice, they pay off the guy, the guy certifies it and submits it to USAID. No one's the wiser. The contractor makes money and the guy supervising it makes money." Laughing ruefully, he adds, "They bought a small plane for one of them. A small plane."

The fact that opportunists have enriched themselves off projects that were intended to lay the foundation for a stable Afghan society makes this all the more tragic, he says. But he thinks that perhaps there's a lesson to be taken away from all of this—from USPI's story, from Afghanistan's flawed reconstruction. "Everyone's accountable in the end," he says. But there's a big difference between being accountable and being held to account. The latter comes only after you've been caught.

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