by Philip Wegmann
As President Biden boarded a European train destined for Kyiv, back in Washington, Rep. James Comer and his team drafted a long-expected letter.
Standing next to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Biden pledged Monday that the lifeline of economic and military aid to that nation, support already well in excess of $100 billion, would not slack, and that the United States would stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes.”
Comer, the new chair of the House Oversight Committee, delivered a different message to the Biden administration Wednesday: Save your receipts. All of them.
The committee is calling on the administration to turn over all documents and internal communications “regarding any economic assistance programs for the Ukrainian government” and to turn over similar material “regarding any anti-corruption efforts” as they relate to both financial and military aid.
The notice comes on the eve of the one-year anniversary of the Russian invasion. The letter announces the beginning of what promises to be the most comprehensive audit of the war effort to date. It was obtained first and exclusively by RealClearPolitics.
“Providing security and humanitarian assistance for warfighting and reconstruction purposes comes with an inherent risk of fraud, waste, and abuse,” Comer wrote, before insisting that the U.S. must develop “oversight mechanisms” to mitigate risks made worse by mandates to spend money “quickly.”
House Republicans are casting a wide net. The committee wants a comprehensive account of “strategies for end-use monitoring of weapons, equipment, direct budgeting assistance, and any other form of economic or security assistance for the Ukrainian people.” They are also calling for all materials related to how much federal money has been spent thus far “and how much remains in the spending pipeline.”
Comer furthermore wants to know about, and calls on the administration to disclose, material related to “any benchmarks for success” of aid programs as well as “any conditions imposed on funds provided as assistance to Ukraine.”
The letter was addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Administrator Samantha Powers of the U.S. Agency for International Development. The White House knew it was coming. Speaker Kevin McCarthy said ahead of the midterms that a Republican House wouldn’t write “a blank check” to Ukraine, and it was only a matter of time before the GOP made good on that oversight promise.
There are reasons for concern. While Zelensky rose to power on an anti-corruption platform, the former Eastern Bloc country has a history of struggling with government fraud and graft. They regularly rank toward the bottom of international corruption indexes, a track record that has even ardent supporters of the defensive war worried.
When Sen. Angus King traveled to Ukraine last month, the independent from Maine told RCP he warned Zelensky that misappropriation of funds or misplaced guns could undermine support in the West: “I said a scandal would really screw this up.”
That message was well received. According to King, “He got it immediately.” But verbal assurances are not enough to assuage Republican concerns, and according to the Joint Strategic Oversight Plan for Ukraine Response report, the administration has struggled to account exactly for all the billions spent. The Pentagon Inspector General, for instance, warned that the department was “unable to provide end-use monitoring in accordance with DoD policy.”
One of the specific areas Comer is demanding answers on: The policy requires tracking the serial numbers of weapons and ammunition, as USA Today and others previously noted, to ensure they are used as intended.
Congress has appropriated $113 billion in economic and security aid to Ukraine since Russian tanks rolled across the border. Over the course of two decades, by comparison, the U.S. spent $146 billion to send military and humanitarian aid to Afghanistan.
The administration insists that they take corruption seriously and have taken steps to guard against it from the beginning of the conflict. They just haven’t seen any maleficence thus far, according to John Kirby who said last month that neither military nor financial assistance “have fallen prey to any kind of corruption in Ukraine.”
“Correct,” Biden’s national security spokesman replied without qualification when RCP asked him to confirm that the administration had not yet identified any previous misuse of equipment or misappropriation of funds from the United States.
The Oversight Committee highlighted that exchange in light of reports that Zelensky had fired several senior officials who were allegedly engaged in bribery and misuse of public funds. “Based on Mr. Kirby’s remarks,” Comer wrote in the letter, “the U.S. National Security Council appears unaware of this corruption scandal, heightening concerns that U.S. agencies are not conducting oversight of taxpayer assistance to Ukraine.”
But responding to those reports directly, Kirby told reporters that the firing of senior Ukrainian officials demonstrated how Zelensky and the U.S. shared concerns over corruption allegations “and it is apparent that he takes it seriously.” Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs, later echoed that sentiment telling the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the staffing changes in Kyiv sent “a very strong signal to others who would try to rip off this war effort.”
If Comer received the signal from afar, he doesn’t see anything reassuring in it. The chairman wrote that agencies must work overtime to ensure that U.S. taxpayer dollars spent in Ukraine are used “for their intended purposes to prevent and reduce the risk of waste, fraud, and abuse.”
The Kentucky Republican is calling on the administration to detail information related to any anti-corruption efforts going back to Feb. 24 of last year, the date of the Russian invasion. His committee expects those materials “as soon as possible,” but they have given the administration a two-week deadline. The Oversight Committee expects that information “no later than March 8, 2023.”
A senior administration official told RCP in January that Biden believes “oversight is critical” and that the administration takes “very seriously our responsibility to work with the Ukrainian government to ensure appropriate safeguards are in place so that U.S.-funded assistance reaches those for whom it is intended.”
The official reiterated that they have “not seen credible evidence” of U.S. military aid being used anywhere but the battlefield and pointed RCP to the whole-of-government plan “to prevent and counter illicit diversion of weapons and military equipment.” That plan was released by the State Department last October, eight months after the conflict began and well after Congress appropriated tens of billions of dollars in aid.
They noted also that economic assistance is administered by the World Bank. The administration contracts with the national consulting firm Deloitte as a third-party monitor “to review financial controls and procedures utilized by the Government of Ukraine to track and oversee U.S. funds.” USAID administers humanitarian assistance, and according to the official, that agency has internal safeguards to counter fraud while also employing an unnamed third-party contractor to monitor funds.
Republicans say those steps are vague and cold comfort at best in light of the last two decades of prior experience. When it comes to the World Bank and NGOs, they are calling for all material related to how multilateral organizations were employed and want “any information regarding any oversight mechanisms.”
“We learned from efforts in Afghanistan that the World Bank does not always have effective monitoring and accounting of funds, and often lacks transparency,” Comer wrote, before adding that “unrealistic timelines and expectations that prioritize spending quickly lead to increased corruption and reduced effectiveness of programs.”
Conservatives have always been wary of massive government spending. Nothing changes, Comer told RCP last month, just because a war is on. “With any massive government spending comes the opportunity for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement,” he said. “Ukraine aid is no different.”
While the White House gives Ukraine high marks for steps that they’ve taken to root out malfeasance, they insist they are on the lookout. After all, Kirby told reporters last month, corruption remains an ever-present danger in all conflicts. “You can’t forget that,” he said. “I mean, it’s a war.”
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Philip Wegmann is White House Correspondent for Real Clear Politics.