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Army officer charged with brides for contracts { December 16 2005 }

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December 16, 2005
2nd Army Officer Charged In Iraq Rebuilding Scandal

An Army lieutenant colonel who received the Bronze Star for her wartime service in Iraq was arrested yesterday and charged with taking bribes in a growing corruption scandal involving the Iraq reconstruction program. An investigation has jolted the program, embarrassed the United States military and exposed a dark underside of the American occupation authority that ran the country after the invasion in April 2003.

The officer, Lt. Col. Debra Harrison, a reservist in a civil affairs unit based in Norristown, Pa., is the fourth person and the second senior Army officer to be arrested and charged in the scandal.

The citation for her Bronze Star recognizes her service in Iraq in 2004, including her actions during an ambush in April that a United States official who served in south-central Iraq said had killed a security guard and wounded others in a convoy.

Colonel Harrison was also ambushed earlier that year in an attack that sprayed windshield glass into her face and severed a nerve in her upper lip, The Centre Daily Times of State College, Pa., reported recently.

She is charged with receiving cash bribes of $80,000 to $100,000, a Cadillac Escalade, a trove of illegal weaponry and other items for steering construction jobs to an American contractor in Iraq.

Some of the cash, intended for projects like a library in the holy city of Karbala and an Iraqi police academy south of Baghdad, paid for a new hot tub and a deck for Colonel Harrison's home in Trenton, according to the federal affidavit. Conviction on the charges, including conspiracy to commit bribery and money laundering as well as a long list of weapons charges, could put her in prison for up to 30 years, the Justice Department said in a statement.

Kristine Belisle, a spokeswoman for the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, the independent office whose investigators uncovered what they say is a bribery and kickback scheme, said more people would probably be arrested.

"It's been a lengthy ongoing investigation," Ms. Belisle said. Referring to the accusation that two senior Army officers helped defraud Iraq of money meant for its libraries, police facilities and other community centers, she said, "It's disconcerting, period, that the military is involved in this at all."

A man who answered the telephone yesterday at the house listed under Colonel Harrison's name said, "Thank you, but there will not be a statement." He would not identify himself.

The other military officer to be charged in the case is Lt. Col. Michael Wheeler, an Army reservist of Amherst Junction, Wis. The others who have been charged are two civilians, Robert J. Stein Jr. of Fayetteville, N.C., and Philip H. Bloom, an American citizen who lived for many years in Romania.

As officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority based in Hilla, south of Baghdad, Mr. Stein, Colonel Wheeler and Colonel Harrison are charged with accepting bribes totaling more than $200,000 a month, to steer at least $13 million in contracts to companies controlled by Mr. Bloom, who is accused of performing the work shoddily or not at all.

For reasons that the Pentagon has so far declined to clarify, Mr. Stein was hired as a comptroller by the Coalition Provisional Authority and put in charge of $82 million for reconstruction, despite his conviction for felony fraud in the 1990's. Colonel Harrison was initially Mr. Stein's deputy and became acting comptroller in Hilla in spring 2004.

The United States official who served in south-central Iraq said that like Mr. Stein, Colonel Harrison was a combative and difficult bureaucrat. At one point, the official said, Colonel Harrison cut off the flow of construction funds to the southern holy city of Najaf - because, Colonel Harrison said, American officials there were mismanaging the money.

Copyright 2005
The New York Times Company

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