For proof that the wheels of justice turn slowly for private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, and sometimes bog down all together, look no further than the indictment this week of George H. Lee, American businessman.
A federal grand jury indicted Lee on charges that he allegedly paid bribes to military officers to win contracts for his company, Lee Dynamics International. The company, a family affair that included Lee's son, Justin W. Lee (also indicted this week), provided bottled water, food, living quarters, and all kinds of everyday items that form the backbone of a military logistical operation. George Lee also stands accused of setting up fake bank accounts, buying airplane tickets for contracting officials and sending them on spa trips.
According to prosecutors, Lee's wrongdoing began back in 2004—almost seven years ago.
Several military officials were held accountable for their roles in his schemes long ago. Maj. John Cockerham pleaded guilty to taking millions of dollars in bribes from Lee and received a 17-year prison sentence. Maj. Gloria Davis killed herself shortly after allegedly confessing to authorities that she had taken a $225,000 payment from Lee.
But it has proven exceptionally difficult to bring Lee himself to justice. Even the indictments this week do not signal the end of the hunt. Lee remains at large, perhaps in Kuwait or Dubai. His son is expected to appear in court in the United States. The government barred Lee Dynamics from receiving further contracts in 2007.
The case provides further evidence of how difficult it is to secure convictions against private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how severe the crime. A number of private security guards accused of killing civilians have escaped sanction. Most notably, a judge dismissed all charges in 2009 against five guards from the firm Blackwater for killing 17 Iraqis in a well-publicized shooting in Nisour square. (An appeals court later reinstated the charges against four of the guards.)
After nearly a decade of war, few mechanisms exist to investigate wrongdoing by the private sector, despite increasing reliance on contractors by the U.S. military. Attempts to bring private contractors under the military justice system have stalled. When federal investigators with the FBI or the inspectors general for Iraq and Afghanistan have attempted to collect evidence for cases filed in civilian courts, they have struggled to meet the demands of the American justice system.
We've annotated the indictment to note highlights of the case and what it shows about difficulty of achieving accountability under the largest, most expensive U.S. reconstruction effort since the Marshall Plan.