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Bipartisan group in Congress wants probe of Pentagon purchases

WASHINGTON—A bipartisan group in Congress is demanding an investigation into charges that the Pentagon pays exorbitantly high prices for everything from coffee pots to computers.

A Republican and two Democrats say purchases made through the Pentagon's prime vendor program, the subject of a Knight Ridder investigation published last month, waste billions of taxpayer dollars.

"As we talk about cutting programs and reducing spending, how can we let the Department of Defense get by with this abuse of taxpayers' money?" said Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C.

"You can pay 85 cents for an ice cube tray, and the DOD is paying $20," he said, citing the Knight Ridder story.

Jones, at the House Republicans' weekly meeting on Wednesday, asked House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., to call on the Armed Services Committee to investigate the Pentagon's prime vendor program, which in fiscal 2005 spent $31 billion on goods and services for the military.

Established a decade ago, the program gives a select group of prime vendors—companies that act as middlemen between military bases and manufacturers—a preference in supplying goods to military bases.

The Pentagon says the program saves money because it cuts out several steps in the supply chain and eliminates the need for warehousing.

Critics say the program allows prime vendors to charge far more than competitive offers in the past would have allowed.

Officials at the Virginia-based Defense Logistics Agency (DLA), which oversees the program, were not available for comment Wednesday evening.

The Knight Ridder investigation examined a sample of 122 food service items purchased through the prime vendor program and found that the Pentagon on average paid 20 percent more than it would have under the previous system.

It purchased coffee pots for $81 each that it had bought for years from the manufacturer for $29. It paid $20 for a plastic scraper that's widely available for $11. It paid $887 for a microwave that can be bought elsewhere for $690.

"This kind of reckless spending is a perfect example of government waste," Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., said in a statement. Bayh and Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., joined Jones in writing to the DLA Wednesday demanding an explanation for the pricing.

"It is especially inexcusable in light of our current budget situation and our continued efforts to provide our troops with much-needed equipment in Iraq," Bayh said. "Wasteful spending is bad enough, but during a time of war, it literally becomes a matter of life and death, and it must be stopped."

Clyburn said he was particularly upset by prime vendor mark-ups, given the shortages suffered by American troops in Iraq.

He pointed to members of a South Carolina National Guard unit that last year refused to go on a potentially dangerous mission because their vehicles weren't armored.

"We spent $20 for an ice cube tray. How can you justify doing that when you can't purchase the materials people need to fight the war?" Clyburn said.


(Markoe is the Washington correspondent for The State in Columbia, S.C.)


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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