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The Resurrection of KBR
Let us forget and forgive injuries.
- Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
Mea culpa, although the culpa is only partially mine. More of it belongs to the Pentagon.
Last week I wrote what I described as a Requiem for KBR and Blackwater. I got the Blackwater part right. I got the KBR part wrong. It has risen Phoenix like from the ashes of the six dead servicemen who died because of KBR's electrical work in Iraq. One hopes the awarding of the contract preceded the inauguration of the new president.
In singing KBR's threnody I relied on the death of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth who when stepping into the shower in a barracks electrically wired by KBR was electrocuted instead of washed. The government has notified Sgt. Maseth's mother that it has changed the cause of death from "accidental" to "negligent homicide." I jumped, but not very far, to the conclusion that KBR would be able to prove it was not responsible for Sgt. Maseth's death as Heather Browne, the company spokesperson said, in the criminal trial of its employees. No criminal trial has yet been set but it seems safe to say that when a "negligent homicide" occurs, a statement of that conclusion does not put the matter to rest.
There were two things I did not know when I wrote. I did not know the identity of Staff Sgt. Christopher Lee Everett. He was using a power washer to clean a vehicle in 2005 when the device short-circuited electrocuting him. The Associated Press reports that army criminal agents have reopened the investigation into the death of Sgt. Everett. In a lawsuit filed by Sgt. Everett's family it is alleged that the electrical work on the defective generator was performed by KBR and Arkel International and that the defective work is responsible for the death of Sgt. Everett. It would not be a great surprise if the family was right. Here, however, is a great surprise.
KBR just got another contract to do electrical work in Iraq. Through the present it has earned $615 million for its reconstruction work that included not building a pipeline, not serving food to the troops and not furnishing potable water. The newest contract is for $35 million and reportedly involves major electrical work.
The arguments in favor of giving the work to KBR is that having gotten things wrong for so many years when dealing with matters electric, it is probably safe to assume it has learned from its mistakes and future electrocutions should be fewer if not eliminated altogether. The argument against giving it another contract is best articulated by David J. Graff, the commander of the Defense Contract Management Agency. In a September 30, 2008 letter addressing KBR's performance he said: "Many within DOD (the Department of Defense) have lost or are losing all remaining confidence in KBR's ability to successfully and repeatedly perform the required electrical support services mission in Iraq." In his letter General Graff referred to "continuing quality deficiencies" and said its executives were "not sufficiently in touch with the urgency or realities of what was actually occurring on the ground." Here is what KBR will be doing under the newly awarded contract.
It will design and build a convoy support center at camp Adder. That includes building a power plant (presumably involving electricity), an electrical distribution center (which will certainly involve things electric), a water purification and distribution system (that will almost certainly involve providing potable water as distinguished from the kind it provided under an earlier contract), a wastewater and information system and road paving. Of those tasks, it has yet to prove itself incompetent in constructing a wastewater and information system and in road paving. Whether or not that is a good sign only time will tell. Not everyone is happy with the new contract.
The Associated Press quoted Senator Byron Dorgan as saying the awarding of the new contract was inappropriate. Sen. Bob Casey asked the Corps of Engineers whether there were alternative contractors that could be used and whether the Corps was confident in KBR's ability to get the job done right. Sen. Casey does not, apparently, believe that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. If he did he'd not have asked the question since the KBR pudding has been gagged on repeatedly by the beneficiaries of its work. Sen. Dorgan said: This is hardly the time to award KBR a new contract for work they've already failed to perform adequately and which put U.S. soldiers at even greater risk." He then made the extraordinary statement that surely caught the Corps by surprise. He said: "Ultimately contractors must be held accountable and so should those who continue to award these contracts." He got that right.
KBR's ubiquitous Heather Browne (whose assigned task is to defend that hapless company) bravely said that KBR was committed to providing quality services and would comply with the military's requirements in its work on the newly awarded contract. What causes her to think it has changed its ways she neglected to say.