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Hated in Washington's halls of power, loved by the taxpayer: Meet John Sopko

U.S. Senate Photographic Studio

John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, at a hearing in Washington, D.C. Tasked with rooting out waste, Sopko is not popular figure at the Pentagon, State Department or USAID. "They've got names for me and usually they're profane," he laughs.

WASHINGTON --  What makes John Sopko a thorn in the Pentagon's side also makes him the American taxpayers' best friend.

Since 2002, Congress has appropriated around $100 billion for reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan -- or more than $3,000 per American. It's Sopko's job to make sure that money is well spent.

As the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), his agency investigates cash squandered by the Defense and State Departments and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) due to corruption, fraudulent contracting and poor execution. 

Jamieson Lesko / NBC News

Even John Sopko's coffee cup has a bit of attitude.

With a showman’s flair, he then publicly exposes the waste with campaigns seemingly engineered to shame the perpetrators into better behavior. Remember that $34 million building constructed in Helmand province that had never been used? That was Sopko. 

Not being liked in Washington's halls of power is "standard operating procedure," he says.

Drinking from a coffee cup emblazoned with the word "badass," the former prosecutor insists "junkyard dog" is a more fitting description of himself.

"I get a lot of pushback … They've got names for me and usually they’re profane," he laughs. "The latest one is 'the terror of Kabul.' My job is to call balls and strikes. Nobody likes the ump."

Sopko also has some choice names for his critics: "General Huff-and-Puff" and "General Bloviator."

The 61-year-old has made a career out of being an outsider. As a federal trial attorney in the 1970s, he was part of an organized crime task force that took on the Mafia. After that, he spent years as a Congressional Oversight Investigator.

Officials often dispute SIGAR’s reporting, accuse the agency of oversimplifying and argue that failed projects are vastly outweighed by the positive cumulative impact of successful projects and spending. Similar to the IRS, though, SIGAR’s responsibility is to root out the problems, not champion what’s being done properly.

"I have some people in the Pentagon criticize me because ... we're 'painting the wrong picture,'" Sopko says. "My view is, that is the picture, those are the facts. I'm just saying what I’m seeing."

Appointed by President Barack Obama in July 2012 after several years as a high-earning partner in a law firm, Sopko says this will be his last federal gig. (His office declined to release his government salary.)  “Having nothing to lose” enables him to take on anyone, regardless of title, rank or status. “We joke around here when we issue some of these reports, ‘Well, you can give up on that ambassadorship!’”

However, Sopko's job is deadly serious. "Fraud kills. It's nice to save some dollars but it's far more important to save some lives,” he says. One example is a SIGAR investigation into a nearly $1 million contract that ultimately had a far greater cost.

In order to prevent insurgents from placing bombs inside open drainage points that line the country’s highways, the U.S. government hired local contractors to install preventive grating systems. The work was not done properly, if at all.

An investigation is underway to uncover why the 64,000-square-foot building was constructed. Pentagon Inspector General John Sopko calls the expensive project a waste of taxpayers' money. NBC's Jim Miklaszewski reports.

"The failure of those contractors resulted in the deaths of two American service members," according to Douglas Domin, SIGAR’S assistant inspector general for investigations. The contractors responsible were arrested as a result of SIGAR’s investigation and are currently in the hands of Afghan authorities.

Diminishing wasteful spending is also a huge part of SIGAR’s mission. The discovery of that vacant 64,000-square foot building in Helmand that would never be used earned Sopko's rage.

The building was commissioned by the Army in February 2010 to be a command and control facility during the surge.

But, in May 2010, even before construction began, the Marine commander in the area submitted a request to cancel the project.

"We built it anyway … this makes no sense," Sopko says, adding that "$34 million of taxpayer money in my opinion has been totally wasted."

Just this week, NBC News reported on a SIGAR finding that the U.S. spent $600,000 on an Afghan hospital – but it still lacks essentials such as basic medical equipment, clean water, electricity and a working sewage system. When NBC News visited the hospital, conditions were so dire that reporters witnessed a 12-year-old having a tooth pulled out with pliers. 

Another big problem: Hospitals, schools and roads are often built to American specifications which are often beyond Afghanistan's maintenance abilities.

In June, SIGAR audited U.S. spending for an air wing supporting counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism missions. The findings were then issued in a report bluntly titled: “Afghan Special Mission Wing: DOD Moving Forward With $771.8 Million Purchase of Aircraft that the Afghans Cannot Operate and Maintain.”

Courtesy SIGAR

John Sopko in Afghanistan.

Keeping reconstruction money out of the hands of insurgents is also a key concern. After an extensive investigation, SIGAR recommended that the U.S. Army suspend or debar 43 contractors who it says, based on classified information, are suspected of “being active supporters of the insurgency or were otherwise engaged in actively opposing U.S. and coalition forces.”

The Army initially rejected the recommendations, arguing it would be a violation of the due process rights of the suspected contractors.

"I am deeply troubled that the U.S. military can pursue, attack and even kill terrorists and their supporters, but that some in the U.S. government believe we cannot prevent these same people from receiving a government contract,” Sopko wrote at the time of the report.

"What bothers me is they didn't even bother to look at the classified information," he says. "Don’t you think they’d want to? I mean shame on them! It's your job!"

Sopko is optimistic this issue will be resolved in the future, but until then, he vows to "keep banging that drum." 

Despite his gruffness, Domin says Sopko is actually a "gentle soul."

"He's ruthless on matters involving his work, but on matters regarding people that involve the overall SIGAR mission and work, he's very human and caring," he added.

Sopko's deputy, Gene Aloise, describes his boss as a man who "has no fear ... because he knows he's doing the right thing."

At the heart of Sopko's mission? Changing the way people think.

"This isn’t about me," Sopko insists. "Maybe there's some general out there or some bureaucrat that says, 'Hmm, if I do this, is that loudmouth Sopko going to put my picture on the paper? OK, let's do something else.' I think if I can accomplish that, if I can get people to stop and think, then I think I've earned the money that they’re paying in my salary."

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