The Corps, its whistleblower and Katrina (10/8-9/07)

Screen shot of my desktop as I wrote this entry.

To review the post on Newstrust, go here:

In an attempt to prevent another breech of its troubled levees, the Army Corps of Engineers ACE) purchased pumps to move water out from behind the floodgates in New Orleans drainage canals and into Lake Pontchartrain. The Times Picayune’s Sheila Grissett reports October 7 in “3rd probe of pumps on canals requested.” that Col. Jeff Bedey, commander of ACE’s New Orleans hurricane protection office said he is confident the pumps

will operate as they were designed to operate.

You gotta wonder.

More than two years after the devastation of Katrina, in the midst of another hurricane season, Maria Garzino, the ACE engineer originally in charge of the project and now a whistleblower, says that the Corps has yet to install sufficient pumping capacity.

Garzino’s 72- page report in May 6, 2006 outlined the pumps’ shortcomings and complained that Moving Waters Industries (MWI) had failed to test its 34 pumps as required in his contract exceeding $26.6 million.

The report only came to light when New Orleans engineer Matt McBride, who had been posting the results of his investigation of the pumps since September 2006, filed a FOIA request and provided the report to Cain Burdeau.

Burdeau revealed Garzino’s report in his March 13, 2007 AP story for which he received an award from the AP in August, after being nominated by his bureau chief. The story led Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA) to write a March 15, 2007 letter requesting that the Government Accounting Office investigate.

GAO’s May 26 2007 report found that while the ACE committed no wrongdoing regarding contracting with (MWI), ACE had not tested the pumps to assure their adequate performance, while providing false assurances to the public.

The lack of action by ACE prompted Garzino to seek out the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) and file a whistleblower complaint. This morning Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) sent me OSC’s September 21 letter ordering the U.S. Department of Defense Secretary Robert Gates to respond within 60 days to to Garzino’s allegations that:

in an effort to meet time-sensitive deadlines, and to avoid government imposed damages and instead earn financial incentives, the contractor, Moving [Water] Industries (MWI), along with USACE, are likely responsible for installing defective pumping equipment that has been largely untested. Therefore, …employees at the Department of the Army, USACE, Mississippi Valley Division, New Orleans District, New Orleans, Louisiana, are responsible for a violation of a law, rule, or regulation, gross mismanagement, a gross waste of funds, and a substantial and specific danger to public safety.

Garzino says the Corps’s self-review of her report was inadequate:

  • The Corps review team under the command of Brigadier Gen. Robert Crear ���arrived on a Friday and then provided a report by Saturday night��� without enough time to address technical issues or even interview Ms. Garzino. That report was issued on June 4, 2007;
  • In the summer of 2007, additional pumps were installed and tested but the reliability of the original forty pumps is still being assumed, despite strong indications that they could not function under a full ���load��� for substantial periods of time; and
  • Corps commanders deliberately evaded ���adequate performance testing requirements��� and approved improper contract modifications.

*

Garzino is just the latest in a series of ACE whistleblowers, two of whom–Donald C. Sweeney and Bunnatine Greenhouse — suffered sufficient retribution to spur Congressional efforts to strengthen protections, such as H.R. 984 and H.R. 985 .

The story of the pumps is especially troubling as they were supplied by Bush family business partner and political supporter J. David Eller of MWI, already under investigation since 1999 for supplying faulty and overpriced pumps in Nigeria. The ACE had also awarded a contract to rebuild the levees to its former officials who had designed the problematic levees in the first place.

Jeff Ruch, PEER’s Executive Director said in today’s release,

The Corps clearly still suffers from crippling integrity failures.

The Institute for Southern Studies (ISS) adds that according to the Center for Responsive Politics’ campaign contribution database, MWI’s Eller has contributed more than $140,000 to GOP politicians and PA Cs since 1993 — including $1,000 to Republican Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in April of this year and another $500 to U.S. Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.) in June.

The ISS raised questions of cronyism regarding the pumps, writing on March 15 that it was another example of the

familiar theme in the ongoing Hurricane Katrina saga: Businesses with close Bush administration ties get key contracts, only to flub the job they were paid handsomely to do.

MWI has a troubled history. Adam C. Smith (email) of the St. Petersburg Times reported July 18, 1999 that the FBI was investigating the Florida-based contractor for pumps sold to Nigeria. A MWI pilot, Greg Johnson, told the paper the pump prices were highly inflated and many of them could never be used because of infrastructure problems in Nigeria.

It was the biggest scam I’ve ever seen in my life…I think the investigation is about misappropriated funds. They [the U.S. government] financed a pig in a poke, and I think they’re interested in knowing where the money went and who made the commissions

Smith also reported that MWI has close ties to the Bush family and the Republ
ican Party. During the George H.W. Bush presidency in the late 1980s and early 1990s, MWI owner Eller partnered with Jeb Bush in a venture called Bush-El that marketed MWI pumps overseas.

April 6, 2002, Smith reported that the Justice Department had filed suit contending that

twice flew suitcases of cash to offshore tax havens to hide his assets.

Burdeau’s March story said that the suit had yet to be resolved.

*

For some reason, despite PEER’s news release, no one in the mainstream media had picked up the story until 11:43 p.m. when Forbes reprinted Cain Burdeau’s AP story (email c/o info@ap.org).

And while Forbes included MWI’s statement about “unfounded allegations,” it left out Burdeau’s next graph found in the version the Times Picayune published:

The company said it clashed with Garzino from the outset because of her “unprofessional and disruptive conduct” when she monitored tests at the company’s facility in April 2006 in Deerfield Beach.

On October 9, I tried to contact MWI through its website to ask it to flesh out this charge. The form was no longer operational. If I get an answer through its email, info@mwicorp.com, I’ll let my readers know.

*

As a postscript, here’s what else I would like to know. When I checked again at 11:30 p.m. on October 9, no national newspapers had picked up the AP story, much less written their own. So besides wondering about ACE, you’ve got to wonder about the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Do they only cover an issue when it’s their scoop, or when a story reaches such a high profile that they’d look foolish not to cover it?

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