I-Team Report: The Afghan Shakedown

July 8, 2009 (CHICAGO) Afghanistan is about 7,000 miles from Chicago. At the bull's eye in the war on terror, it is the last place you would expect to hear about contractor bribes and graft - the kind we usually associate with City Hall, not a foreign battlefield.

But the I-Team has learned that the officer behind those schemes was given the army's Bronze Star, even as the corruption investigation is said to have been underway.

Since late 2001, the Bagram air base, north of Kabul, Afghanistan has been a primary staging facility for the U.S. offensive against the Taliban.

Before leaving the base in 2005, Army Major Christopher P. West of Chicago received a military medal for valor. It is the Bronze Star, the army's fourth highest combat award. An inscription on the medal reads that it is given for "heroic or meritorious achievement."

But West's fellow soldiers question whether he was entitled to the Bronze Star and whether it should be taken back.

Even as American soldiers were fighting and being killed in Afghanistan, when Major West arrived there in 2004, authorities say West was focused on a scheme to extort money from paving contractors, part of a building project so extensive that an entire section of the base was known as 'Contractor Row.'

In a document filed last month in federal court, West pleads guilty to bribery and conspiracy, admitting that he sent boxes full of cash to a friend and fellow Illinois National Guardsman Charles Patton who was still in Chicago living on the South Side.

Patton, no apparent relation to the great World War II general George Patton, has also pleaded guilty in the afghan shakedown, admitting that he kept the cash until West returned home, then split it with the major.

Military justice expert and retired army colonel Michael Spak isn't surprised by the case.

"Unfortunately the military population is sort of a mirror image of the civilian population. I don't know what the percentage of thieves are in the US," said Prof. Michael Spak, Chicago Kent College of Law.

Regardless, West and Patton were among them in cahoots with Afghan contractors hired to repair concrete runways and replace old wooden barracks.

According to a federal court record, while Major West was head of base operations at Bagram, he took hundreds of thousands of dollars in kickbacks for paving contracts and the installation of bunkers to protect combat units.

West, 45, was also handed that medal for heroic achievement, a fact brought to the I-Team 's attention in an email from Afghanistan sent by an army official from Illinois who states that West was given the medal "in spite of the investigations, while other worthy Illinois soldiers were denied such an honor."

"I guarantee you he didn't get a medal for skimming money," said Spak.

Outside a south suburban fast food restaurant on Tuesday, the I-Team offered to hear Major West's side of the Bronze Star. But he waived us off without a word.

"He will definitely keep the medal, they cannot take away the medal, he could commit murder and they can't take away the medal, the only way you can remove the medal, even the medal of honor, is to show that it was fraudulently procured," said Spak.

Because this is a civilian case, even though both West and Patton have pleaded guilty to corruption while in the military, they both remain full members of the military. That won't change until defense officials decide the fate of their positions.

Both Chicago men are cooperating with federal authorities which indicates there may be a larger investigation of corrupt contract bids underway in Afghanistan.

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