The acting U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction resigned unexpectedly Thursday afternoon, removing the White House's only real contender for the post and injecting new uncertainty into a troubled watchdog office.
Herb Richardson, who assumed his post in February, told National Journal in an interview that he will be leaving for a job in the private sector. Richardson had been in the job for just under six months and was undergoing a frustratingly long wait to see if the Obama administration would formally tab him for the post on a permanent basis. People familiar with the matter say that Richardson was the only candidate under serious White House consideration, which means the administration will now need to scramble to find his replacement.
In an interview Thursday evening, Richardson said the job offer - which he declined to detail was simply "too good to pass up."
“During the last six months I have been successful in changing the culture and direction of this organization and focusing us more tightly on the money,” Richardson said. “An opportunity presented itself and it couldn’t wait.”
In the interview, the departing watchdog said that the hoped the White House would temporarily give the job to his current deputy, a veteran auditor and investigator named Steven Trent, while it looked for a permanent replacement.
Richardson had succeeded Arnold Fields, a former Marine general who was fired by the White House in January after months of withering Congressional criticism.
His surprise resignation Thursday is the latest blow to the inspector general’s office, which is charged with investigating corruption and mismanagement in the sprawling American reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. The U.S. has appropriated more than $70 billion on security assistance and development projects in Afghanistan since 2002, and the Obama administration has made clear that it will continue sending extensive financial aid to the impoverished country even after the U.S.-led war winds down in 2014.
But a variety of audits by Richardson and numerous Congressional committees have identified serious problems with the sprawling aid effort. A SIGAR audit last month found that the American inability to control the billions of dollars of U.S. aid flowing into Afghanistan every year is increasing the risk that some of that money is inadvertently fueling the Afghan insurgency. The report said that absent far-reaching policy changes, much of the American aid money which will be spent in Afghanistan in coming years may be misspent, embezzled, or passed into the hands of the country’s militants.
“While U.S. agencies have taken steps to strengthen their oversight of U.S. funds flowing through the Afghan economy, they still have limited visibility over the circulation of these funds, leaving them vulnerable to fraud or diversion to insurgents,” the staff of acting Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction Herbert Richardson wrote in the report. “We found that agencies have not instituted sufficient controls over U.S. funds, limiting their oversight.”