Wednesday, October 22, 2014

What’s happening in the wonderful world of US government contracting (Kuwait)

For some reason Zain had the previous post blocked.   We'll see if this gets blocked.  I've written way worse. I don't believe there is anything offensive here..  

So, since 2003, I’ve been piddlin around with USG/military contracting. 

My fascination (or complete lack thereof – because truth-be-told, it is kind of a snooze fest)  started in the winter/early Spring of 2003.  One of my Kuwaiti friends invited me to lunch at his camp in Southern Kuwait, close to Wafra.  It was a gorgeous day; the sky was blue.  Small plants (afraj) poked their heads through the sand.  We sat in an original bait shaar tent (camels hair and open on one side).  No one was around.  You could just hear the sound of wind and occasionally their herd of camels calling out to each other.  We ate barbecued meat and drank camels milk and tea.  It was lovely.

Ya know – I shoulda known my friend had something up his dishtasha sleeve….

I looked out over the hills to see 2 beautiful white (not horses, but) Mercedes sedans, b-lining it to the tent.  Mohammed said with a smile, “Oh, I want you to meet my friend from Saudi Arabia…” (they had just driven up from Dammam to make my acquaintance).

For the next hour, I was bombarded with questions (meeting venue:  Front seat of one of those giant sedans) about my work background and how we might be able to do business together.  Turns out Saudi friend owns the Saudi agency rights to (a large American vehicle company beginning with "F") and wants to work with the military.  Now, to this very point, at this very camp, I had never had any introduction to military contracting (not directly anyways - but I'd worked in the US for several defense contractors in a position of zero authority).  All I now knew was that I was armed with a whole bunch of company profiles, some stationary, and was told to go to Camp Doha and find the contracting people to see what contracts they had.

In early ’03, you could walk right up to Camp Doha and see what they had.  I asked around and found out who the main contracting guy was.  I said I wanted to work with them leasing or selling trucks.  Just so happened that Heavy Lift 1 (can you believe it! I think they are now on 7 or 8) had just been put out for bid.  They handed me a 10 paged hard-copy RFP.  (These days, everything is done through a website and you will probably never meet a contracting officer in person.)  Nice guy. Can't remember his name.

I took the information back to Saudi Friend and asked him how he wanted me to proceed.  A week later, he called back and said he had decided not to work with the military.  This coulda been for several reasons:  Most likely he didn’t want to work with someone as inexperienced as I was; or perhaps my job of finding the contact was complete; or perhaps he was a total dumbass and had the opportunity to do big business and dropped it.  I never followed up to find out.  Whatever.

So all of a sudden, I was getting job offers left and right from Kuwaiti friends and companies who wanted an American face to sell their stuff/services to the military.  It was a free-for-all and ethics weren’t a consideration (to the employers).  They sure as Hell have always been a consideration to me, which is why I am still poor and didn’t take any of those easy-come-easy go-to-jail jobs. (If you are American and represent a company and are charged with wrongdoing, you are going to jail.  If you are a foreigner without a green card - not likely).

I’ve seen some extreeeemely unethical stuff since 2003.  I was invited to “drive up to Balad” in May of 2003 (an ADVENTURE!  It’s on!  I didn’t tell my mom) in a Toyota Prado.  I went with another Kuwaiti friend who was selling light stands/generators to the military.  I stocked up on food and water at Sultan Center.  My friend laughed at me; saying we wouldn’t need any of it (we used everything).   The light stands were shipped up separately by truck.  Another American was along for the ride (he spent the entire trip laying down in the back seat, asleep – or afraid, I couldn’t tell).  They assured me that we would be with a convoy and have US military protection.  Yeah… didn’t happen.  We crossed on the Kuwaiti side with a single piece of paper from the contracting officer, stating that we had business.  It wasn’t even official.  The 2 guards let us through the berm that divided Kuwait from Iraq.  No barbed wire.  No surveillance.  Nothing.  We were in. 

Immediately, as was the case almost everywhere we went in Iraq, people seemed to come up from the sand.  You could be miles and miles into a bleak and barren desert, and all of a sudden, as soon as you stopped the car, there would be 5 people asking for either food or water.  20 feet into Iraq, little barefoot kids came up and asked us for candy.  I knew it would come in handy!  My greatest gift during the trip was a half-eaten box of Cocoa Puffs that I gave to a little boy playing on tank.  I’ll never forget the loving look he gave me.  I wanted to adopt him on the spot.

The other thing that I had the foresight to bring was medicine that stopped me from having to pee every 5 seconds.  I get nervous.  I’m a girl.  I gotta pee.  Maybe other girls cry.  Not me.  I pee.  Anyways, I popped some of those pills and for 10 hours, I was pee-free.

We stayed in Baghdad the first night and then continued on to Camp Anaconda (“my anaconda don’t want none unless you got buns, hun” … ok, never mind the rap reference…) at Balad.  Balad Air Base used to be where Saddam’s “elite” air force was housed.  It was a fascinating drive in, as there was still a lot of evidence left of the US’ brief invasion.  All around Balad there were corn and sunflower fields with tall green plants stretching into the sun.  You would never know that they quietly hid a multitude of aircraft; spread out throughout the fields so that they might not all be destroyed in a singular US air assault.  We saw Migs, helicopters, cargo planes -  you name it.  Stuck right out there in between the stalks.  Miles and miles of them.

There is so much more that I could write about this experience in Iraq; the land, the kindness of people that I met, the food; because it was early in 2003 and for a very brief period of time, a westerner could be a tourist.  But for now, I just want to focus on the contracting, so I’ll leave out a bunch and maybe I’ll write about it later (or save it for that tell-all book and screen play that someday I will write). 

When we got to the contracting office on Balad (which was very loosely-secured – I think we might have stopped just once on the way in to show the piece of paper), we met a female colonel.  I can’t remember her name, but I admired her immediately.  My Kuwaiti friend offered her a sandwich and she said, “Unless my troops get the same thing, I can’t take it, but I thank you.” 

The contracting officer we were there to meet with was a polar opposite.  I honestly didn’t know it (they told me on the return trip to Kuwait), but we were there to pay him off for accepting sub-standard light sets (many were broken on the trip) that had been fabricated in Shuwaikh.  I noted how easily he left his side-arm on the table as he went out to fake-inspect and sign off on the goods.  It was right on the table next to me.

Approximately 6 months later, I learned that he had used his gun to commit suicide after being caught sending thousands of bribe dollars in cash rolled up in textiles and sent via DHL to his wife in the States.  I never wanted to be part of corruption and there I was; witness to the absolute worst repercussion of it.

Anyhow…. Sigh…. I think of him every now and then.  He had a great laugh and was a good story-teller. He was like so many who gave into temptation.  I suspect that perhaps if  you are making $40,000 a year and have an opportunity to become rich overnight, the temptation sometimes proves to be too much.   Some who were caught committed suicide so their families would still be able to receive military benefits later.  It happened quite often during 2003-2006 in Iraq and several in Kuwait.  They were usually  listed as “death by non-combat gunshot wound”.

Contingency Vs Sustainment:  When war happens, in the contingency stage is when the military spends money with not a while lot of oversight.  Later, the military operation moves into sustainment and auditors and military law enforcement moves in to verify purchases and make sure everything is Kosher.  Contingency in Kuwait was like the wild West.  Combine a culture where “gift giving” and graft is an acceptable form of business conduct, with (young, inexperienced, low-paid?) contacting officers being sent out to spend in a hurry… well, there was bound to be trouble. 

Do an internet search for “Contractor fraud Kuwait” or something similar and see what comes up.  Probably the most infamous was Maj. Cockerham who walked away with $9 million.

"How did this culture of corruption come to pass in the office in Kuwait?" committee Chairman Ike Skelton, D-Mo., demanded during a hearing on the issue.  Regardless of the stock-answer of “I believe this is an isolated incident” (and I have heard that several times directly in contracting conferences held in Kuwait), it was not isolated.  It was indeed a culture of corruption.  I have no doubt that it continues, but perhaps it is just better hidden now or criminals have found alternative ways of getting money.

Personally, I have been offered gifts and money to “go down to Arifjan and buy us a contract.”  Integrity has been the reason behind my termination with two separate employers in Kuwait.  That is a badge that I proudly wear.  When/if asked in job interviews,  “Have you ever been terminated from a job?”  I can answer, ‘Yes.  And I am proud of it.’

So here I am in Kuwait working for an ethical company.   I’m still working on military contracts. This time, on yet another KBOS (Kuwait Base Operations and Security Support Services) contract.  (KBOS is the big contract with the US military for providing peripheral services like admin, healthcare, storage, supplies and a whole lot else.  It comes up for re-bid every 5 years.)   And you know what?  This time, I like what I’m hearing. I also like who I’m meeting and dealing with (on the prime bidders side).  Overall, the people that I have met are like-minded (making my job a lot easier):  sincere and who believe in integrity.  They have asked succinct questions about ethics in abiding by the Kuwait Labor Law; which has always been a gray area in Kuwait contracting.  They’re also asking about life in Kuwait in general and advice from people on the ground (which many of their predecessors have not).

One very good question I was asked was, “Let’s say I have an American employee who has agreed to a set salary and agreed to work 12 hours a day and no overtime?”  I say, ‘That’s great, but it is illegal as per Kuwait Labor Law if you do not abide by the stipulations of the local law.  You run the risk of that employee suing and later being compensated for all of his (tracked) overtime.”  For example, maybe in the US I agree to work 6 days a week, 12 hours a day.  Then, I come to Kuwait and find out that by law – I don’t HAVE to work that many hours per day/week and that the company, by law, should pay me overtime, regardless of what I agreed to in the States.  Ooops.   Now, if these employers bid the contract by Kuwait Labor Law, agreeing for time off and/or overtime (which may not exceed 180 hours in a year, by the way), they must inevitably bid too high (as many of the employees are required to be Americans, brought from the States).  So, this puts the employers in a precarious position of wanting to be ethical, yet wanting to win the business.  How is that fair?

Unfortunately, the US military still refuses to interpret the labor law or provide any guidance.  And unfortunately yet again, the USG is prone to look at the lowest price, technically qualified bid; without digging into reasons WHY the price might be the lowest (unfair business practices – not abiding by or pricing for local labor law, etc.)  An ethics hotline poster isn’t going to do a whole lot in a country where workers (yes, even 'mericans) are afraid to (and will) lose their jobs for speaking up.  And even then, are there enough investigators to process the complaints?  And more pertinently:  Does the US military actually CARE about combatting in trafficking in persons as they claim?  If so, it isn’t American contractors coming to work in Kuwait who stand to lose the most on not being given their rights as employees on these contracts:  it is the TCNs who are making very low salaries and are the true beneficiaries of overtime and a legal work week. 
I’ve been in Kuwait for 18 years.  I never in a million years thought I would have gone into this field of work, but I’ve received a heck of an education by seeing it here “on the front lines”.  Ok, so from that perspective, it has been fascinating.  Filling out forms and looking up FAR clauses is NOT fascinating.  Meeting interesting people and learning is.  Like many other things in Kuwait, I have had opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have “lucked into” in the States.  I sincerely believe that every experience you have; ever person you meet; everything you do is for a reason.  

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