House Panel Probes Pentagon on Electrocutions

Wednesday, July 30, 2008 at 6:44 pm
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.)(WDCpix)

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.)(WDCpix)

A congressional report released Wednesday blames defense contractor KBR for the recent electrocution of a U.S. soldier in Iraq, in contradiction to what the Pentagon has said.

The report by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform shows that KBR knew about a defective water pump that killed Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth in January 2008. Maseth, 22, died while showering at the Radwaniyah Palace Complex in Baghdad. A memo yesterday from the Pentagon’s inspector general had said KBR couldn’t have known that the shower was life-threatening.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

KBR, a subsidiary until last year of the oil services giant Halliburton, has received $20 billion in Iraq war contracts since the 2003 U.S. invasion. The contracts cover repair of Iraq’s infrastructure, including rewiring and re-plumbing the palace building where Meseth died. KBR recently won a share of a new 10-year, $150-billion contract to continue their rebuilding and reconstruction work.

But the report fuels lawmakers’ claims that no one is monitoring Iraq’s biggest contractor. The result has allegedly been the death of up to 19 U.S. troops. At a House oversight committee hearing Wednesday, Democrats and Republicans alike appeared startled by a Pentagon official’s lack of knowledge about KBR and its controversial electrical work.

“I can’t say that after this hearing I feel assured that the Pentagon, KBR or inspector general will find the answers,” said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif), the committee chairman.

The Pentagon’s answers at the hearing, mainly from the acting inspector general, Gordon Heddell, did little to assuage the committee members. In fact, they didn’t even seem to please the inspector general.

After viewing the committee report, Heddell qualified his own inspector general report on the Maseth electrocution as an “interim report.” Heddell’s report had found “no credible evidence” implicating KBR. He promised the committee that he would issue a new report in October that used the “significant new information” provided by the committee.

The oversight committee report focuses narrowly on the Maseth electrocution, concluding that KBR installed the water pump that killed him.

It notes that an Army Special Operations Task Force determined that Maseth died because a water pump engine overheated. Originally, the Pentagon told Maseth’s family that he died from carrying an electric appliance into the shower. But the water pump has since been pinpointed as the undisputed cause of death.

The committee interviewed Staff Sgt. Justin Hummer, the previous occupant of Maseth’s residence. Hummer said that he informed both the Pentagon and KBR that the water pump pipes had high voltage and that he often got shocked while showering.

Based on Hummer’s statement, the committee obtained a work order indicating that the Army hired KBR employees to address the water pump problem in July 2007. This was water pump that KBR had previously installed.

At the hearing, none of the five Pentagon officials who testified could either verify or deny the validity of the work order. A representative from KBR, meanwhile, said that the order was for a different water pump.

“The installation order that you’re showing is for another building,” Tim Bruni, an engineering and construction manager at KBR told Rep. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), as Higgins displayed the order on an overhead projector.

“Though we cannot be certain who installed the water pump, we know that KBR did not do so,” Bruni insisted. The KBR representative also denied responsibility for other electrocutions of soldiers in Iraq.

The denials leave an accountability problem that may ultimately lead to the Pentagon officials in charge of overseeing KBR.

“Who is to blame for this?” Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the ranking Republican on the committee, asked Bruni. “Was it the army? Was it the soldier responsible for taking the shower?”

“The responsibility lies with the army,” Bruni said after initially dodging the question.

The army, meanwhile, remains uncertain how many soldiers have actually been electrocuted.

Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the multinational force in Iraq, said last month that 13 soldiers had been electrocuted. Last week the Pentagon said the number was 16. Now the oversight committee says it has documents indicating 19 deaths.

At the hearing, Jeffrey Parsons, executive director of the Army Contracting Command, said that the Pentagon is still in the process of investigating the electrocutions. Parsons also noted that Pentagon auditors lack “sufficient skill sets or expertise to perform adequate oversight of electrical work being performed by KBR.”

Meanwhile, the Defense Contracting Management Agency, which bears primary responsibility for auditing KBR contracts, is still in the process of finding qualified auditors. Keith Ernst, a former DCMA director, testified at the hearing that the agency should have had a “trial run” managing infrastructure contracts in the U.S. before doing audits in the Iraq war zone.

Committee members also assailed the bureaucratic communication skills of DCMA. Waxman pointed out that as early as 2004 the U.S. Army Safety Center issued a report calling electrical hazards “the unexpected killer.”

In February 2007, DCMA itself reported that there had been 283 fires at facilities maintained by KBR. In May 2008, a DCMA officer warned DCMA’s Iraq deputy commander that failure to act on the 2007 report could be a liability for the agency. The deputy commander responded, “What report?”

Toward the end of the hearing, Rep. Robert Brady (D-Tex.) grilled Parsons, of the Army Contracting Command, about soldiers’ deaths from improperly installed electrical devices. Cpl. Marcos Nolasco was electrocuted while showering in May 2004. A power washer that Sgt. Christopher Lee Everett used in September 2005 shorted out, electrocuting him.

“It’s been more than four years since the first death,” Brady said. “Why don’t we know what happened?”

“I can’t explain why there’s not answers,” Parsons said

KBR’s new 10-year Iraq contract is slated to begin in December.

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