Justice Department Indicts Six in Alleged Afghanistan Translator Scam

translator in urban training facility Camp Lejeune
Cpl. Justin Wilson, a team leader with Company F, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, leads the way for a translator, in an urban training facility during a training exercise aboard Camp Lejeune, N.C., July 15, 2009. (Walter D. Marino II/U.S. Marine Corps)

The federal government on Wednesday indicted six former government contractor employees for allegedly recruiting unqualified linguists to deploy with U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

The six defendants are accused of taking part in a conspiracy to commit wire fraud by recruiting the unqualified linguists, the Justice Department said Thursday. The linguists were supposed to be able to speak Dari and Pashto for the U.S. military, including acting as translators during interactions with Afghan civilians and service members.

"The defendants in this case allegedly engaged in an expansive conspiracy to enrich themselves at the expense of American soldiers and military operations in Afghanistan," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Nicholas McQuaid of the Justice Department's criminal division. "Fraud and abuse of U.S. government contracts paid for by the American taxpayer, and designed to support our men and women [in] uniform, will not be tolerated."

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The Justice Department said that Mezghan Anwari, 41, and Rafi Anwari, 54, both of Centreville, Virginia; Abdul Latifi, 45, of Irvine, California; Mahjoba Raofi, 47, of San Diego; Laila Anwari, 54, of Fredericksburg, Virginia; and Zarghona Alizai, 48, of Annandale, Virginia, were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and varying additional counts of wire fraud.

They are scheduled to make their initial court appearances May 5 in the U.S. District Court of the Eastern District of Virginia, where they were indicted by a federal grand jury. If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison for each count.

Depending on how far the candidates they recruited made it through a multistep vetting process, Justice said, the recruiters could have received bonuses. They previously worked for a contracting company in Arlington, Virginia, that provided subcontract services to recruit linguists on a prime contract of more than $700 million, a release from the department states.

But, the indictment alleges, the contractors "knowingly" recruited linguists who didn't have the minimum proficiency in those languages -- and carried out an impersonation scheme to get them through the screening process.

After recruiting the unqualified linguists, Justice said, the contractors arranged for other people who actually could speak those languages well to impersonate them during oral proficiency interviews, to make sure they passed.

Sometimes, the recruiters themselves impersonated the unqualified candidates, Justice said.

Special agents and investigators from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, conducted the investigation, along with the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command and Defense Criminal Investigative Service.

"This indictment alleges serious crimes that threatened to put American troops at greater risk in a combat zone," SIGAR John Sopko said in the release. "We remain committed to protecting our country's investment in Afghanistan reconstruction, and to pursuing justice anytime that investment is put at risk."

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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