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Anti-Drug Hero Target of Embezzlement Probe

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While the U.S. government is considering Colombia’s request for $1.5 billion in anti-narcotics aid, authorities here are investigating charges that a police anti-drug hero stole American funds, according to court documents.

Both the Colombian police and U.S. officials confirmed that Maj. Oscar Pimienta--the helicopter pilot credited with hunting down Medellin cocaine cartel kingpin Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha, “The Mexican,” a decade ago--is the target of an investigation over alleged embezzlement of U.S. funds.

A former subordinate has accused Pimienta of writing checks to a nonexistent company, falsifying travel expenses and approving bills from vendors who overcharged when he was administrative head of the Air Service Division of the National Police from 1996 to 1997. The funds involved were part of the U.S. government operational support fund for Colombian anti-narcotics efforts, according to U.S. officials and sealed court documents obtained by The Times.

The money pays for ground transportation and official travel.

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Maintenance and fuel for airplanes used to eradicate drug crops, as well as support and recruitment of the pilots that fly them, are administered directly by the Narcotics Affairs Section in the U.S. Embassy, according to an agreement between the U.S. and Colombian governments.

Americans are about to commence a formal audit, which has been delayed by police concerns about security, according to a U.S. official. “This does not cause us undue concern,” the official said. “We have a process in place that, if it does not prevent [embezzlement], it at least detects” it.

The amount of the alleged theft was still not clear after an initial court-ordered audit was completed in July. Auditors found that between $200,000 and $450,000 in expenditures was unaccounted for and that 180 receipts were missing.

The sums from receipts and two different ledgers were all at odds. All fell short of the $2 million that the Air Service Division withdrew during that period from a bank account set up to cover the expenses, according to bank records.

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The auditors criticized the accounting methods used by the Air Service Division as “not reasonably reflecting expenditures, as this audit showed.” They also recommended verifying whether the receipts were valid.

Earlier this year, an “Administration and Finance Procedures Manual” for the National Anti-Narcotics Police was adopted. But the accounting system in place during the period investigated was so haphazard that expenditure records for gasoline and repairs were not detailed enough to allow auditors to determine whether police had been overcharged, the audit concluded.

The preliminary audit focused mainly on receipts for gasoline and repairs, which together accounted for about 45% of the anti-narcotics unit’s operational expenditures of $2 million over a two-year period. Auditors found that the U.S.-funded police anti-narcotics unit spent an average of $11 a day in gasoline for each of the unit’s 45 vehicles and $683 a day on repairs for the entire motor pool. The auditors did not state whether that expenditure was reasonable.

“As a defense attorney, I tell you there is absolutely no proof,” said Hector Arcadio Pulido, who is Pimienta’s lawyer and a consultant to the police. “We are proving that the merchandise was bought and that the services were performed.”

Since the audit in July, the defense has produced receipts that reduce to about $4,000 the amount of the discrepancies between the funds provided by the United States and the documented expenditures, he said.

The judge refused to comment on the case, even to confirm or deny Pulido’s statement. U.S. officials are awaiting the outcome of their own audit before commenting on the amounts involved.

“This has been done with bad intentions and bad timing,” Pulido said of public revelations about the investigation. Colombian military courts are structured to prevent any publicity about trials until a verdict is rendered.

Sixto Pinto, a court reporter at the respected newspaper El Tiempo who has covered the investigation closely, said: “I congratulate the police for their actions against drug traffickers, but I criticize them for trying to cover this up. . . . They should pay more attention to the poor management of their subordinates, such as Capt. Pimienta.”

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Police See Accusation as Attack on Institution

Police sources respond that they are obeying the law by not commenting publicly on a case that is still in progress. They consider the accusation and the leak that brought it to public attention to be an attack on the police as an institution and on widely respected National Police Commander Gen. Rosso Jose Serrano as an individual.

The accusation undermines Serrano, they said, because after Pimienta left the Air Service Division he was the general’s administrative assistant and accompanied him on at least one visit to Washington as an interpreter.

Pimienta was promoted from captain to major between the time the accusation was filed in July 1997 and when he was formally charged last May. He is free on his own recognizance and is performing administrative duties, Pulido said.

Police sources defended Pimienta as a pawn who is being used to embarrass the police. They suspect that the accusation was prompted and later leaked by other parts of the armed forces or by some of the 8,000 police officers whom Serrano has fired for corruption or incompetence. They say other branches of the armed forces are jealous because the police receive nearly all of the U.S. anti-narcotics aid to Colombia--$289 million this year.

Whistle-Blower Reportedly Had Been Fired for Misconduct

The whistle-blower who filed the complaint, Orlando Olivares Duarte, had been fired for bad conduct, Pulido said. Sources close to Olivares Duarte said he was accused of having stolen several airline tickets during the time he worked for Pimienta.

He has since been absolved and is seeking reinstatement in the police force, one source said. Police could not confirm the information because the records are sealed.

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In court documents, Olivares Duarte accused Pimienta of four specific methods of stealing funds:

* Pimienta allegedly bought goods and services from a company called Esgon that did not provide them. Pimienta had on his desk blank receipts from the company, whose phone number turned out to be a residence where no one had heard of either Esgon or its supposed proprietor, said Olivares Duarte. Police employees cashed checks written to Esgon and gave the money to Pimienta, he said.

* A company called Grupo Importadora allegedly was allowed to overcharge for automobile parts and repairs, and another called Interamericana de Suministros was allowed to overcharge for electrical parts.

* Pimienta supposedly presented claims for 10 days or more of food and lodging expenses when he was away from his post for only a day or two and stayed in police installations.

* He paid a contractor $2,000 to build a fence around a repair area. The fence should not have cost that much, according to Olivares Duarte, who provided the court with a copy of the receipt.

Pulido said investigators had found only one receipt from a company that had not provided the respective service. That receipt had been stolen from the company for unknown reasons by the supplier who had provided the service, he said. The preliminary audit did not look into the legitimacy of the receipts provided.

“My client has done nothing wrong,” Pulido said. “He is very upset, not from fear for himself but because of the damage that has been done to the institution.”


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