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Soldier-mayor blows the whistle on war fraud

Jul. 29, 2013 - 01:36PM   |  
George Toubekis, an Iowa Army National Guard sergeant first class, uncovered fraud in Afghanistan.
George Toubekis, an Iowa Army National Guard sergeant first class, uncovered fraud in Afghanistan. (The Des Moines Register)
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Iowa Army National Guard soldiers Lt. Col. Wesley Golden, left, and Sgt. 1st Class George Toubekis, right, accompany Special Inspector General John Sopko at their post in northern Afghanistan. (SIGAR / Courtesy The Des Moines Register)

UNIVERSITY PARK, IOWA — Leave it to a stubborn, small-town Iowa mayor to step up and help Congress thwart fraud in its decade-long, $100 billion reconstruction of war-torn Afghanistan.

George Toubekis, an Iowa Army National Guard sergeant first class, spent most of the last year stationed in the landlocked nation.

Today he’s back home in University Park, an obscure suburban bump on the southeast side of Oskaloosa that occupies less than one square, hilly mile of Iowa soil. Toubekis, 37, is mayor here of fewer than 500 residents and oversees a modest annual budget of about $100,000.

The mini-putt golf course qualifies as a major business. The big issue is the $783,675 reconstruction of a main road that runs eight-tenths of a mile all the way across town, 80 percent of which will be federally funded.

To put Toubekis’ Afghanistan fraud detective work in perspective: He has been credited so far with helping to prevent as much as $20 million in stolen fuel.

“Some would classify it as a whistle-blower,” Toubekis said of how his mission quickly veered into intrigue and tense detective work. “I would classify it as I was doing my job as an American, as a taxpayer and as a soldier.”

While immersed in this drama, Toubekis also maintained some of his mayoral duties. When possible, he Skyped into monthly City Council meetings as the talking head visible on the laptop computer at the end of the table back home in University Park.

But everybody here seems to know Toubekis, his wife, Amy, and their four kids, ages 4 to 18. He’s the easy-to-spot mayor with the bald head, broad shoulders and intense gaze.

When Toubekis sets his mind to something, few expect him to back down.

“Your attitude after you talk to (Toubekis) for a while is that anything is possible,” said David Krutzfeldt, mayor of Oskaloosa.

Eureka moment

Toubekis is a mechanic by trade, originally part of the 3655th Maintenance Company, and as a civilian has worked eight years at Vermeer Manufacturing in Pella.

He was assigned to manage fuel in Afghanistan by luck of the draw. But he armed himself with knowledge by devouring every fuels manual possible while stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, just before he flew overseas in August.

By October he had assumed his post at Camp Marmal in Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan, a fuel distribution hub for seven major military bases plus myriad smaller sites.

Toubekis essentially wore two command hats. He was the contracting officer’s representative, which meant he evaluated companies’ performance in fulfilling their military contracts on base.

But he also held the more powerful title of fuels manager for all of Regional Command-North (RC-North), with his finger on the spigot of lifeblood for the entire region.

His first inkling of fraud began with simple observation and basic math during his first week at Camp Marmal with a tour of the massive fuel storage containers.

The containers, called “bags,” are earthen berms lined with an impermeable canvas.

A report insisted that a million gallons of fuel were on hand, but Toubekis saw that the bags were 250,000 gallons short. And there seemed to be little acknowledgment of or accountability for the discrepancy.

“Hey, these people are stealing from us,” the soldier thought to himself. “Stand up and do the right thing and take care of it.”

That was the eureka moment that consumed the remainder of his deployment and spiraled out from his base throughout Afghanistan.

Honored for going beyond call of duty

Last October was a whirlwind as Toubekis began to chase the missing fuel and eventually phoned the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) for help.

SIGAR was created in 2008 by Congress as a watchdog on the $100 billion Afghanistan reconstruction. More than half that sum has been allocated to prep the nation’s native security forces. The American-led NATO coalition officially made Afghanistan responsible for its own security in a June 18 ceremony, ahead of an expected complete military withdrawal in 2014. But about 65,000 American troops remain deployed there.

It’s not as if Toubekis was briefed on SIGAR at the start of his mission. He happened to spot a poster on the wall near his office. It implored, “Do you suspect fraud? Please call us.”

Nobody, Toubekis fumed, should be getting rich off taxpayers’ money.

So the small-town Iowa mayor ended up embroiled not just with SIGAR but an alphabet soup of agencies, including the DCMA (Defense Contract Management Agency) and NCIS (Naval Criminal Investigative Service).

He also put some of his grass-roots sensibilities to work: He built a constituency by developing trust as a regular presence among the truck drivers and contractor employees to help determine the true scope of the theft ring.

Several networks had hands in the fuel theft, Toubekis said. The stolen fuel then was sold for profit — with some of that revenue making its way to al-Qaida.

The team’s work led to arrests. The trial in March of a local official, Ibrihim Ashna, who was convicted of theft and bribery, marked the first time a SIGAR agent had testified in Afghan court.

Responding to a caller earlier this year on the cable network C-Span, Special Inspector General John Sopko explained how Toubekis was able to spot as many as 340,000 gallons of missing fuel within a single month — fuel worth at least $15 per gallon thanks to the costly distribution to remote military bases.

“The sergeant looked at the fuel base and he says, ‘There’s something wrong here,’ ” Sopko said. “ ‘This doesn’t make sense. I know something about fuel.’ … He’s a mayor from a small town in Iowa. He’s your typical National Guard. The citizen soldier comes in to do his job. He says there’s something wrong here, and he tells his boss. The lieutenant colonel says, ‘There’s something wrong. They’re handing over fuel and we don’t have it.’ ”

Toubekis received a letter of commendation while still in Afghanistan from U.S. Rep. Kerry Bentivolio, a Republican from Michigan’s 11th District. He praised Toubekis for going “beyond the call of duty to protect not only the safety, but also the best interests of the American people.”

At home as mayor, more work to do

Toubekis and the rest of the 1034th returned in July to a raucous homecoming with an overflow crowd of friends and family at Camp Dodge in Johnston.

It was one of the most emotional days of his life, Toubekis said. “Standing in that formation and knowing that my family was standing behind me was priceless.”

Some 40 friends and relatives turned out to welcome him home.

He hasn’t yet reacclimated to the Iowa humidity after a year in the desert. And he was granted a month off before returning to his job at Vermeer.

But the Monday morning after his homecoming, he attended the county supervisors meeting to educate himself on a local hot-button issue (possible construction of a regional airport) that stirred controversy in his absence.

When asked if he would run for re-election in November, there’s no hesitation. Yes, of course.

“I don’t think I’m going to do it forever, because I think there needs to be change,” the soldier added. “But I don’t think I’ve got everything accomplished that I want to get accomplished yet.”

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