Defense contractor KBR Inc., which is under criminal investigation in the electrocution deaths of at least two U.S. soldiers in Iraq, has been awarded a $35 million contract by the Pentagon to build an electrical distribution center and other projects there.
The announcement of the new KBR contract comes just months after the Pentagon, in strongly worded correspondence obtained by The Associated Press, rejected the company's explanation of serious mistakes in Iraq and its proposed improvements. A senior Pentagon official, David J. Graff, cited the company's "continuing quality deficiencies" and said KBR executives were "not sufficiently in touch with the urgency or realities of what was actually occurring on the ground."
"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," wrote Graff, commander of the Defense Contract Management Agency, in a Sept. 30 letter.
Graff rejected the company's claims that it wasn't required to follow U.S. electrical codes for its work on U.S. military facilities in Iraq. KBR has said it would cost an extra $560 million to refurbish buildings in Iraq used by the U.S. military, including Saddam Hussein's palaces, which among other problems are based on a 220-volt standard rather than the American 120-volt standard.
KBR announced last week it won a new $35.4 million contract from the Army Corps of Engineers to design and build a convoy support center at Camp Adder in southern Iraq. It will include a power plant, electrical distribution center, water purification and distribution systems, wastewater and information systems and road paving.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said the new KBR contract was inappropriate. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said he has formally asked the Corps of Engineers whether it was confident KBR could accomplish it and whether the Corps had any alternatives.
"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," Dorgan told the AP in a statement. "Ultimately, contractors must be held accountable, and so should those who continue to award these contracts."
A KBR spokeswoman, Heather Browne, said the company was committed to providing quality services and would comply with the military's requirements in its work on the Camp Adder contract.
The AP has learned that Army criminal agents have reopened the death investigation of Staff Sgt. Christopher Lee Everett, 23, a member of the Texas Army National Guard. Everett was killed September 2005 in Iraq when the power washer he was using to clean a vehicle short-circuited. KBR and another contractor, Arkel International, performed the electrical work on the device's generator, according to a civil lawsuit filed by Everett's family.
"I think it's something that needs to be done so these electrocutions don't continue to happen," said Everett's mother, Larraine McGee of Huntsville, Texas, told the AP in a phone interview. "There's no excuse for this whatsoever." McGee said the Army's senior criminal investigator at Fort Hood notified her about the reopened investigation.
The AP previously reported that the Army has reclassified another soldier's electrocution death as a negligent homicide caused by KBR and two of its supervisors. Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, 24, a Green Beret from Pittsburgh, was electrocuted in his barracks shower. An Army investigator said KBR's contractor failed to ensure qualified electricians and plumbers did the work. The case is under legal review, and KBR has said it was not responsible for Maseth's death.
The deaths of Everett and Maseth are among the 18 under review by the Pentagon's inspector general. Some of the deaths have been blamed on improperly installed or maintained electrical equipment. In three cases, service members were shocked while showering. Families of Maseth and Everett also have sued KBR in federal court for wrongful death; the company is attempting to have the lawsuits dismissed.
The Corps of Engineers said KBR has earned $615 million on 30 similar contracts as the newest it awarded to the company and noted that KBR has not been banned or suspended from winning U.S. government contracts. The government can ban firms in cases of fraud, antitrust violations, bribery, tax evasion or for actions that reflect "a lack of business integrity or business honesty," according to federal rules.
"KBR has not been debarred, suspended, nor have they been proposed for debarment from government contracting," Corps spokeswoman Joan Kibler said.
KBR was previously owned by Halliburton Co., the oil services conglomerate that former Vice President Dick Cheney once led. Democrats have long complained it benefited from ties to Cheney.
Separately, court papers filed in Houston on Friday show KBR is preparing to plead guilty to federal bribery charges for promising and paying tens of millions of dollars in bribes to officials in Nigeria in exchange for engineering and construction contracts between 1995 and 2004.
KBR spokeswoman Heather Browne said the company had no comment Friday. The company is expected to appear in federal court next week as part of a plea deal.
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