In January, Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, a Green Beret, was electrocuted when he stepped into a shower at his barracks in Baghdad. He wasn’t the first. In all, 13 Americans have diedfrom electrocution in Iraq, including 10 in the Army, a Marine, and two contractors. James Risen of the New York Times reports, “In addition to those killed, many more service members have received painful shocks,” according to Army officials. The Pentagon has now ordered the inspection of all buildings maintained by KBR.
In the last few years, I’ve looked at what I call Iraq Reconstruction Corruption, and though this won’t surprise, KBR – known until last year as Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown and Root – emerged as one of the most egregious profiteers at the expense of taxpayers and the soldiers they were paid billions of dollars to serve.
I’ve reported on the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) questioning hundreds of millions of dollars in charges by the company; KBR’s attempt to cover-up tainted water it provided troops that a Halliburton water expert called a “near miss” that could have “result[ed] in mass sickness or death”; KBR providing water used by soldiers to bathe and brush their teeth that contained coliform and E. coli bacteria and led to an outbreak of bacterial infections; and now, tragically, it seems shoddy electrical work – and a failure to make repairs despite complaints – has resulted in the death of at least one soldier due to electrocution.
According to the Times, Green Beret Sgt. Justin said he suffered electrical shocks four or five times in 2007 in the same shower where Sergeant Maseth died. Specialist Stephan Michael Pabst, of the 19th Special Forces Group said he suffered electrical shocks in the same complex and issued a repair order to KBR. It was never fixed and he continued to suffer shocks in his shower.
Adding to the outrage is the fact that the senior civilian in the Pentagon who oversaw KBR’s multibillion dollar contract – the largest in Iraq – was replaced when he questioned $1 billion in charges by the company and some KBR expenses, “including approximately $200 million for food services.” The 31-year army veteran, Charles Smith, based his concerns on information provided by the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) and wanted to withhold payments and performance bonuses until KBR furnished the Army with adequate data. Not only was Smith fired from his position but the responsibilities were outsourced to a private firm, RCI, who approved KBR’s numbers.
A former Pentagon fraud investigator and contracting expert told the Times, “I have never seen a contractor given that position, of estimating costs and scrubbing DCAA’s numbers. I believe they are treading on dangerous ground.”
So what is the result of KBR’s infuriating track record? Would you believe the Pentagon recently doled out part of a 10-year, $150 billion contract in Iraq to KBR? Not only that, but RCI’s parent company – Serco – “will help oversee the Army’s new contract with KBR.”
As Representative Henry Waxman told the Times, “[This] confirms the [House Oversight and Government Reform] committee’s worst fears. KBR has repeatedly gouged the taxpayer, and the Bush administration has looked the other way every time.”
But the waste and fraud go much further than KBR. As the Times writes in an editorial on war profiteering, “Investigators say that current war fraud runs into untold billions, including faulty ammunition and vehicles and not-so-bullet-proof vests. Investigative officials and the inspector general for Iraq reconstruction have testified that they’re hampered by the ongoing conflicts and need more time to catch contract thieves after they end…. The Justice Department, meanwhile, is reportedly sitting on a backlog of more than 900 cases in which whistle-blowers have accused government contractors of billions in fraud, in both military and domestic spending. Long delays bog down the information in secrecy as the department, understaffed and overloaded, weighs whether the allegations have merit, according to The Washington Post. On both the war front and the home front, the government must do a far more convincing job of going after profiteers who are gouging the taxpayers.”
That is why the Commission on Wartime Contracting– established through legislation introduced by Senators Jim Webb and Claire McCaskill and signed into law (albeit with a signing statement) by President Bush in January – is so critical. Modeled after the Truman Committee – which conducted hundreds of hearings and investigations into government waste during and after World War II, and saved taxpayers more than $178 billion (in today’s dollars) – the Commission on Wartime Contracting was created to address the systemic waste, fraud and abuse associated with the wartime-support, reconstruction, and private security contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Seven of the eight members have now been appointed, four by the Democratic Leadership, two by President Bush, and one by Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner. The final appointee will be named by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – and hopefully soon, since it has been nearly 6 months since the bill was signed into law.
Time will tell whether the Commission will serve as the kind of independent truth-finding body that Senators Webb and McCaskill envisioned (and that I called for in 2006, hereand here). President Bush used yet another signing statementto again indicate that he doesn’t necessarily have to obey the law that he signed. I also find it troubling that Representative Boehner chose Acting Secretary of the Army Dean Popps to serve on the Commission. How independent and non-partisan will he truly be? In contrast, the Democratic Leadership selected a Republican and former member of the Bush Administration, Clark Ervin, as one of its four appointees.
The people need to know who got the contracts, for how much, and whether those contracts were fulfilled. We need to watch this Commission closely and ensure that it is able to fulfill it’s broad mandate.