The Pentagon's chief investigator is looking into allegations that one of the military's major command headquarters inflated budget proposals at the Pentagon's request to hide $20 million from Congress, officials said Monday.

The Pentagon inspector general's office (search) is conducting a preliminary inquiry into the allegations, which were reported to a Pentagon hot line for anonymous tips on fraud and abuse, the officials said. The audit will determine whether a full-scale investigation is launched.

Marine Corps Lt. Col. Rose-Ann Lynch, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said Pentagon officials are conducting an audit at U.S. Special Operations Command (search) headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla. She said she had no other details, including when the hot line complaint was made.

The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, which was first to report on the charges, said it obtained documents which show Special Operations Command officials divided the $20 million among six projects in their 2003 budget so the money would not attract attention from congressional overseers.

The plan, as described in the documents obtained by the Times, called for Special Operations Command to pad its proposed budget by $20 million so the money could be used later by the Pentagon for other purposes. It is not yet clear what other purposes the Pentagon (search) had in mind.

Federal law requires that money appropriated by Congress be used only for purposes authorized by Congress.

The Times report quoted from an e-mail sent by Special Operation Command comptroller Elaine Kingston to colleagues Feb. 11, 2002.

She wrote that a person in the Pentagon comptroller's office had asked if her office would "park" $40 million. "They needed an answer in five minutes," Kingston wrote. "The agency they had it parked with had a problem and couldn't do it." She added that her office determined it could not "park" $40 million but found six programs where they could add $20 million.

In her e-mail, Kingston advised colleagues that in budget briefings for congressional aides they should include the inflated figures but not highlight or discuss them.

Special Operations programs that already were getting spending increases were chosen to add the extra millions so they would not stand out when reviewed by Congress, Kingston wrote.

Special Operations Command is responsible for special operations forces for all the military services. Its 2003 budget is $4.9 billion.