View Full Version : 2 Years later, Slayings In Iraq And Lost Cash Are Mysteries

05-09-2006, 08:45 AM
2 Years Later, Slayings in Iraq and Lost Cash Are Mysteries



BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 8 — The killing of Fern Holland, a human rights worker from Oklahoma, remains unsolved and as mysterious as it was when her body was found riddled with bullets on a desolate stretch of road near one of Iraq's southern holy cities in March 2004.

Now, federal investigators are grappling with a second mystery: what happened to hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash issued by American authorities to Ms. Holland and Robert J. Zangas, a press officer who died in the same attack near Karbala, in the days before their deaths?

Financial records from the American-run compound in Hilla, the south-central Iraqi city where Ms. Holland and Mr. Zangas were based, have established that much or all of that money — issued for things like programs to train Iraqis in democratic governance and construction of women's rights centers that Ms. Holland was setting up — was either missing or improperly accounted for after their deaths.

American investigators are trying to determine whether that money was stolen as part of the web of bribery, kickbacks, theft and conspiracy that they have laid out in a series of indictments and court papers describing corruption by American officials in Hilla in 2003 and 2004, according to officials involved in the inquiry. That corruption case, centered on reconstruction efforts, has led to four arrests, and more are expected.

The killings of Ms. Holland, a 33-year-old lawyer and dogged advocate of women's rights, and Mr. Zangas, 44, a former Marine lieutenant colonel from Pittsburgh, received wide attention at the time in part because they had been the first civilians of the American occupation government, called the Coalition Provisional Authority, to die in Iraq.

An Iraqi interpreter, Salwa Oumashi, also died in the attack. Their killings occurred before the major outbreak of insurgent violence that has made such episodes seem tragically routine. A group of Iraqis wearing police uniforms are believed to have been the triggermen in the killings, but no suspects have been publicly charged.

None of the charges in the corruption case mentioned Ms. Holland or Mr. Zangas, and there was no indication that any of those arrested in that case were suspects in their deaths. But as investigators follow a tortuous trail of receipts, vouchers, invoices and purchase orders indicating that Ms. Holland and Mr. Zangas received more than $320,000 in cash for their government work in the last two weeks of their lives, they have found that each of the four people arrested in the corruption case had some role in handling the money or were involved in some way with Ms. Holland's projects.

One of those, Robert J. Stein Jr., a former American occupation official in Hilla, pleaded guilty in February to five counts of bribery, conspiracy and other charges, and could serve up to 30 years in prison. Mr. Stein disbursed the cash to Ms. Holland and Mr. Zangas and was involved in accounting for it after their deaths.

The name of another American arrested in the corruption case, Philip H. Bloom, a businessman who was working in Iraq, appeared in contracting documents involving changes in Ms. Holland's projects after her death. He pleaded guilty to three counts of conspiracy, bribery and money laundering last month. Two Army Reserve officers, Lt. Col. Debra Harrison and Lt. Col. Michael Wheeler, who oversaw projects in Hilla, have been arrested and charged with accepting bribes.

A lawyer for Mr. Bloom, John N. Nassikas III, declined to comment. Lawyers for Mr. Stein, Colonel Harrison and Colonel Wheeler did not return telephone calls requesting comment.

At the core of the corruption case, prosecutors say, was a scheme in which Mr. Stein and other officials had steered at least $8.6 million in reconstruction contracts to companies controlled by Mr. Bloom, in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes, jewelry and other favors. Mr. Stein also pleaded guilty to federal weapons charges for having used the money to buy submachine guns, grenade launchers and other weapons in the United States.

Investigators tracing the flow of the cash to Ms. Holland and Mr. Zangas are looking at the possibility that Mr. Stein and others took advantage of the deaths to steal additional money, according to the officials familiar with the investigation.

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, which is investigating corruption in Hilla, provided copies of some of the documents tracing the cash, and described others, after a reporter for The New York Times asked about a paragraph in one of the office's published reports, about the mishandling of cash recovered "from the office of a paying agent who was killed in the field."

That unidentified agent was Ms. Holland, and the documents indicate that Mr. Stein and Colonel Harrison were in charge of recovering the cash. One of those documents is a "memorandum for record" signed by Mr. Stein and Colonel Harrison saying that $71,099 was missing from Ms. Holland's office after her death. But that is only part of the hundreds of thousands of dollars that cannot be accounted for.

Through press officers in both the United States and Iraq, the F.B.I. declined to comment on the case.

No suspicion for the missing money has fallen on Ms. Holland or Mr. Zangas. And those who knew and worked with Ms. Holland, whose efforts on behalf of women had won her recognition, said it defied belief that she could have lost track of so much money. Adly Hassanein, an Egyptian-American official for the Coalition Provisional Authority who routinely worked with Ms. Holland in Hilla, said it was also unthinkable that she would have been carrying that amount of money with her.

"She would never do that, because there was no need," said Mr. Hassanein, who recalled that Mr. Stein had directed the recovery of money from Ms. Holland's room and office after she died.

As for Mr. Stein's memorandum asserting that money was gone, Mr. Hassanein said: "He's trying to say, 'I'm a victim.' "

Four people close to Ms. Holland said they have been questioned by investigators from either the F.B.I. or the special inspector general's office.

They include Stephen Rodolf, a lawyer in Tulsa who is a friend of the Holland family; R. Richard Love III, a lawyer for the family; Rachel Roe, who knew Ms. Holland in Iraq and worked in a related capacity there; and Ms. Holland's sister Viola Holland.

Ms. Roe said that an investigator asked her whether Ms. Holland would have been carrying tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars around in her car when she was killed — possibly explaining a big shortfall. Ms. Roe said that she told the investigator: "No way — Fern was not a dummy."

But according to the paperwork, she was granted a sizable amount of money in the weeks leading up to her death. On Feb. 7, Mr. Stein approved a request by Ms. Holland for $200,000 for a training program in Jordan on democracy, governance and human rights for 120 Iraqis. A set of papers indicate that by Feb. 25, Ms. Holland had received the money — $199,044 was the precise amount — although her signature never appears on the documents, raising further suspicions among investigators.

Mr. Stein controlled the disbursement of nearly all government cash in Hilla. So much was available, often in shrink-wrapped stacks of $100 bills known as "bricks," that it was stashed all over the compound, the inspector general said in earlier reports. Millions were held in filing cabinets, a footlocker, even a safe in a bathroom, investigators found.

But the main lode was in a narrow, heavily built safe in the basement of the Babylon Hotel, which served as the American occupation government's headquarters in Hilla. Mr. Stein, who personally paid out the cash for contracts, indicated in the paperwork that he was giving the money to Ms. Holland on Feb. 25 for the democracy and human rights training program.

Meanwhile, between March 3 and March 7, records indicate, Mr. Stein paid Mr. Zangas more than $120,000 for television equipment and training for the Iraqi news media programs that he was running. All of that money appears to have vanished without a trace, since none of the paperwork recovered by the inspector general's office indicates that it had been spent for those programs before the slayings in the late afternoon of March 9.

Another piece of paper that has caught the investigators' attention is the "memorandum for record" signed by Mr. Stein and Colonel Harrison. Written on June 23, 2004, as both were leaving Iraq at the end of their tours of duty with the provisional authority, the memo has as its subject line "Recovered Funds From Fern Holland (deceased)."

The memo says that Colonel Harrison and another woman entered Ms. Holland's office on the day after her death (which the colonel incorrectly recalls as March 11). "In her office we recovered a box filled with what appeared to be a large sum of money consisting mostly of $100 bills and some smaller bills," the memo says.

The memo said that the box was found to contain $125,035. But it says, "According to Robert Stein, Fern Holland signed for and withdrew $196,044," referring to the payment that Ms. Holland had not, in fact, signed for. The memo's inference is that missing money is indicated by the difference between what was found and what Mr. Stein said he had paid out. "These funds ($71,099) cannot be accounted for," the memo concludes.

Even that was not the end of the story, the inspector general found. Mr. Stein failed to properly account for the money in his records, according to the inspector general's report, leaving it unclear exactly where the $125,035 ended up.