A Bright Career Unravels in Iraq

Times Staff Writer

When Jay Garner arrived as the first U.S. administrator in Iraq after the 2003 invasion, he chose a highly decorated Air Force colonel named Kimberly D. Olson as his right arm because he considered her among the best America had to offer.

One of the first female pilots in the Air Force, she was a hard-charger with an unblemished reputation for honesty, a high profile in the Pentagon and a commitment to the U.S. goal of creating a democracy in the Middle East.

Today, Olson is at the center of accusations of audacious impropriety in the corruption-plagued reconstruction of Iraq.

She is accused of profiting from the post-invasion chaos by using her position to benefit a private security firm that she helped operate, according to interviews and government documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times.

Pentagon investigators allege that while on active duty as one of the most powerful figures in Iraq, Olson established a U.S. branch of a South African security firm after helping it win more than $3 million in contracts to provide protection for senior U.S. and British officials, as well as for KBR, a subsidiary of Halliburton Co.

Olson, 48, has spent more than a year fighting the charges. In military proceedings last year, she denied abusing her position to enrich herself or the security company, but agreed to plead guilty to lesser charges. She was reprimanded and allowed to resign from the Air Force with an honorable discharge and no reduction in rank. Olson was also banned from receiving further government contracts for three years. She is appealing the ban.

To her defenders, including Garner and other prominent people, Olson's troubles are evidence that Washington regulators are imposing unreasonable standards of conduct for a war zone. Friends described Olson as a problem solver who moved from crisis to crisis and who was punished for her effort to get things done in a chaotic environment.

Olson's legal file is packed with endorsements and letters of recommendations from Garner and his successor as U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, as well as from top military and civilian officials in Iraq and Washington. Some worry the action against her is an overzealous prosecution that might impinge on reconstruction efforts.

Government officials "are going over there with the best of intentions, and they're coming back and being grilled," said Bob Polk, who was the director of plans for Garner. "It will have a chilling effect the next time."

But government investigators say Olson took advantage of her position for personal gain and made a mockery of U.S. efforts to establish the rule of law in a country long ruled by corrupt autocrats. Olson is the highest-ranking U.S. military officer to be accused of wrongdoing in connection with the reconstruction.

Olson did not respond to requests for an interview, but she supplied by e-mail a point-by-point response to the charges against her. The e-mail said the military's version of events contained "numerous factual statements and conclusions that are not accurate."

In interviews, Garner defended his former aide, saying he thought she was trying to carry out his orders to help his personal bodyguards find work in Iraq.

"Kim Olson is one of the most honest people that I've ever known," said Garner, who was in charge of the first occupation government in Iraq, known as the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. "I don't think she got a proper hearing."

The previously undisclosed Olson case is the latest controversy over corruption allegations involving private security contractors in Iraq.

It also points up the chaotic beginnings of the reconstruction, plagued from its start by accusations of waste and fraud.

In January 2003, Garner, a retired Army general turned defense contractor, was chosen by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to lead the reconstruction effort in Iraq. Olson, a senior official in the Pentagon's comptroller office, was initially assigned to work on financial matters, but Garner soon made her his executive officer, impressed by her can-do attitude, he said.

As Garner assembled his team in Kuwait in mid-March in preparation for moving into Iraq, he found that he would need private security to protect him and other senior U.S. officials. Garner asked for military protection, but was told there would not be enough troops available.

About the same time, Pentagon documents say, Olson took steps to open an office out of her home in Vienna, Va., for Meteoric, which was based in Pretoria, South Africa. Four months later, she filed formal incorporation papers that made her director of the new American entity.

It was the beginning of a substantial boom for private security in Iraq, where more than 25,000 security contractors working for scores of different companies now operate. The Government Accountability Office estimates that at least $766 million has been spent on security contracts in Iraq.

In May 2003, Garner was replaced by Bremer. Garner became concerned that his security detail -- made up of former members of the South African special forces -- would be left without jobs.

He recommended the South Africans to Bernard Kerik, the former New York police commissioner who was leading the effort to establish a police force in Iraq.

Garner said he ordered Olson to assist the South Africans in winning jobs with Kerik by helping them through the U.S. contracting process. The South Africans subsequently went to work for Meteoric.

"While I was there, to my knowledge, the things that Kim did were based on my instruction," Garner said. "I never gave her an illegal order. There was nothing wrong with her giving [the South Africans] assistance as to how to go through the U.S. contracting process."

After Garner left at the end of May 2003, Olson stayed on to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority's Program Review Board, which was responsible for approving contracts using Iraqi funds. Olson began helping Meteoric win contracts and did other work for the company, the Pentagon investigation said.

She put together a promotional packet that featured a picture of Garner and the leader of the South Africa security team, Lion Olivier. The packet included a letter of recommendation from Garner, the investigation said.

Olson also helped Meteoric draft contract proposals to provide security guards, which the company later won, the Pentagon said. One contract, valued at $600,000, was to provide security for Kerik. A second, worth $1.9 million, was to provide security for trucking convoys operated by KBR. Meteoric won at least one other contract, for nearly $500,000, to provide protection to senior British officials in Iraq.

Over the summer of 2003, Olson allegedly became a director of the South African company, sought visas for company officials, contacted senior Pentagon officials to resolve a payment dispute in favor of the company, and wrote letters and invoices on behalf of the company. One coalition official estimated that Olson spent 70% of her time working on Meteoric matters, the Pentagon investigation said.

By that fall, rumors spread that Olson had some connection to Meteoric. The Pentagon's Defense Criminal Investigative Service opened an investigation that resulted in the Air Force conducting a so-called Article 15 proceeding, a military inquiry used for less serious crimes.

In her rebuttal, Olson objected to many of the military investigators' conclusions. She denied that she helped steer work to Meteoric, or that she was a director of the South African company. Investigators found copies of contract proposals mailed from her computer to Meteoric, but she said her computer was frequently used by Meteoric guards, who worked in an office next door.

Olson also denied forming the U.S. office of Meteoric in March. She said she opened the U.S. company in July 2003, after consulting with a Pentagon ethics official, in order to pursue security contracts with private businesses, not with the Department of Defense. She acknowledged receiving $12,000 in "start-up money" from South Africans involved in Meteoric to help the American branch of the company, but said she returned the money.

Olson resigned from the U.S. company in October 2003, she said, and the firm "had no customers, entered into no contracts and made no money."

James Cole, Olson's lawyer, said that Olson refuted many of the Pentagon investigators' conclusions and avoided a court-marital. She agreed to plead guilty to less serious offenses, including creating the appearance of conflict of interest based on her involvement with Meteoric and failing to get her commander's approval before pursuing outside employment.

"With a full understanding of the facts, we were able to show her commanding officer that the serious allegations in the report were not substantiated," Cole said.

In March 2005, Olson was reprimanded and ordered to pay $3,500. The sanction effectively ended her career. Olson's former commander, who issued the sanctions, could not be reached. Air Force lawyers involved in the proceeding declined to comment.

A separate branch of the Air Force concerned with regulating contractors later took up Olson's case. It concluded that Olson's actions were "fraudulent" and "seriously improper." Air Force Deputy General Counsel Steven A. Shaw issued a finding in October 2005 that banned Olson and Meteoric from receiving contracts for three years. The ban is not yet final.

Meteoric ran into trouble elsewhere. Employees were arrested in 2004 on suspicion of participating in an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. A former U.S. military official said some of the men had ties to Executive Outcomes, a controversial mercenary outfit involved in fighting civil wars in Sierra Leone and Angola.

"These guys were knuckle-draggers," the official said.

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