Pentagon Report Vindicates Army Corps Whistleblower

By Brian Hansen

WASHINGTON, DC, December 8, 2000 (ENS) - An internal Pentagon investigation has confirmed a whistleblower's allegations that high ranking U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officials manipulated data in order to justify a series of costly and environmentally injurious public works projects on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

lock

The Corps spent seven years and $58 million studying proposals to expand the lock and dam system on the Upper Mississippi River. A new report unveiled this week concludes that the Corps was not objective in those studies. (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The investigation, conducted by the Army's Office of Inspector General (IG), concludes that three Corps officials were involved in rigging cost/benefit studies in order to justify spending $1.1 billion to expand a series of seven locks on the rivers.

The IG probe found that an "institutional bias" for large scale construction projects exists within the Corps, which wields great power over wetlands reclamation projects, dam removal proposals, and other contentious environmental issues.

The IG's investigation, embodied in a 168 page report, stems from a series of allegations put forward in February by whistleblower Donald Sweeney, who formerly served as a senior economist on the Corps' lock expansion study project.

Sweeney was removed from the project after he concluded that its costs would vastly outweigh its benefits.

He lodged a complaint with the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, alleging that senior Corps officials had manipulated lock expansion study data in order to produce results favoring "immediate large scale construction."

lock

Some of the locks on the Mississippi are more than 50 years old (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Sweeney disclosed his allegations of institutional misconduct to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a whistleblower protection group of federal government employees that works to promote ethics and accountability among government agencies.

As a result of the IG report prompted by Sweeney, Secretary of Defense William Cohen has asked the Army to consider taking disciplinary action against two top Corps commanders: Major General Russell Fuhrman and Major General Phillip Anderson.

Fuhrman created a climate within the Corps that led to manipulation of the lock expansion study's data, the IG report states.

Anderson, the report concluded, gave preferential treatment to the barge industry, and allowed barge industry representatives to become directly involved in the economic analysis of a lock expansion project that would benefit them.

lock

The agriculture and barge industries say that the Mississippi and Illinois rivers are congested with traffic, and that larger locks are needed to support international trade (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

Cohen has also asked the Army to consider launching an additional investigation into the activities of Major General Hans Van Winkle, who allegedly spent preliminary design and engineering funds on Mississippi lock expansion efforts without having completed the required studies.

Sweeney was allowed to review and comment on the IG's report prior to its release this week. In a letter to the Special Counsel's office, Sweeney declared that the report reflected the "heart of [his] disclosure."

"I fully concur in these findings," Sweeney wrote. "Systematic reforms should be immediately instituted to make sure this sort of thing never recurs."

The IG's report was also hailed by Environmental Defense, a New York based nonprofit organization that works to promote cost effective solutions for the nation's most urgent environmental problems.

"The investigation found that the Army Corps' planning process is systematically biased in favor of building projects, no matter what the need, and no matter what the cost to taxpayers and the environment," said Tim Searchinger, an Environmental Defense attorney who helped Sweeney prepare the affidavit that prompted the report.

Environmental Defense and other conservation groups had long been suspicious of the Corps' Mississippi and Illinois River studies, which were ostensibly intended to explore how to best meet navigation needs on the two waterways.

The agricultural and barge industries maintained that larger locks and additional dams were needed to alleviate growing congestion on the rivers.

Conservation groups argued that expanding the locks would cause severe environmental damage both within and around the waterways.

lock

Many conservation groups maintain that expanding the locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers will harm the environment (Photo courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers)

The IG report released this week did not address the merits of those allegations, but it did find that "strong indications" that the Corps had an "institutional bias" for approving large scale construction projects favored by powerful industries.

That predisposition towards large scale projects, the IG report declared, calls into question the Corps' "responsibility to be an honest broker" in any project it takes on. The IG report cited evidence showing that the Corps is frequently subjected to "immense" pressure to approve questionable projects.

In his letter, whistleblower Sweeney, who formerly served as a senior economist on the Corps' lock expansion study project once again echoed those concerns.

"The external pressures on the Corps result primarily from political expectations regarding projects," Sweeney wrote. "The internal pressures on the Corps result from the nearly total reliance on project related external funding to maintain staff and workload."

That is troubling for environmental groups, who are concerned about the Corps' involvement in other environmentally sensitive projects.

"This pressure explains other, equally unjustified projects on the lower Mississippi river that would drain up to 200,000 acres of wetlands," said Environmental Defense's Searchinger. "It is imperative that the Secretary of the Army address these projects promptly."

Among the Corps' other projects currently worrying environmentalists is the controversial Yazoo Pumps project, a $181 million initiative supposedly designed to dissipate flood waters that regularly inundate farmlands in the state of Mississippi.

The Corps proposes to construct massive hydraulic pumps just north of Vicksburg, Mississippi, near the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo Rivers. The Corps hopes the pumps will help flood waters to move faster off farmland prone to flooding.

Environmentalists maintain that the pumps would do much more harm than good to local citizens and the surrounding environment. They say the pumps would alter the hydrology of the entire region, and damage at least 200,000 acres of wetlands in the process.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have each spoken out against the Corps' Yazoo pumps project proposal.

The proposed expansion of the locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers is currently being studied by the National Academy of Sciences. The IG's report on the Army Corps of Engineers will forwarded to Congress and the President to determine if changes are warranted within the agency.

Sweeney, who is still with the Corps, has been named "whistleblower of the year" by two civic organizations.