$86 million US counter-narcotics plane still grounded

An $86 million Drug Enforcement Administration plane purchased seven years ago to fly surveillance and counter-narcotics missions in Afghanistan remains grounded in Delaware and likely will never fly in Asia, according to a scathing audit released Wednesday by the Justice Department's inspector general.

The review, which was spurred by a July 2014 whistleblower's report, found that the Global Discovery program to modify the ATR 42-500 aircraft to provide the DEA with advanced surveillance capabilities was supposed to be completed in December 2012. But it has been plagued by missteps costing the agencies $86 million, or four times the initial estimated cost. The project was part of an agreement with the Defense Department.

The report said it was unlikely the plane will ever fly in Afghanistan because the DEA has since ceased aviation operations there.

"Our findings raise serious questions as to whether the DEA was able to meet the operational needs for which its presence was requested in Afghanistan," the review said.

The DEA said in a statement that it agreed it "can and should provide better oversight of its operational funding" and was reviewing its policies and procedures.

The drug agency spent $8.5 million on parts for the plane — including $5 million in spare engines — "the majority of which cannot be used utilized on any other aircraft in its fleet," and the Defense Department built a $2 million hangar in Afghanistan for the plane that was never used and likely never will be, the report said.

The audit also found that the DEA didn't fully comply with federal procedures when it purchased the aircraft, spending nearly $3 million more than it had previously estimated for the $8.6 million aircraft.

The DEA also charged about $2.5 million in improper expenditures billed under the agreement with the Defense Department, including for costs associated with aircrafts and personnel who were entirely unrelated to the agency's Afghanistan operations. That included $8,122 in unallowable travel related to missions in Haiti, the Bahamas, Peru and Florida.

The review found the DEA's Aviation Division lacked adequate policies and procedures for receiving, reviewing and paying contractors with no requirement that any documentation be approved before personnel were paid. When modifications were improperly done on the plane, the Defense Department poured more money into the effort.

The plane, which has missed every scheduled delivery date, is now estimated to be completed in June — nearly one year after the DEA pulled out of Afghanistan. The report said the DEA intends to fly the plane in the Caribbean, Central America and South America.

The report made 13 recommendations to improve oversight of its aviation operations agreements and the problematic program.

The drug agency has already acted on two recommendations, according to the inspector general's office. That includes ensuring foreign offices are now required to provide supporting documentation to be paid for work. The agency said it's also now established an electronic method for pilots to submit mission reports to make sure program data is accurate.

In its formal reply to the audit, the DEA said that based on previous positive experiences using Defense Department contractors to modify its aircraft it "had no indication that the Global Discovery modification would encounter the significant delays and problems that ultimately occurred."


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