Fix the pumps

Monday, July 02, 2007

Cover up, Part 3: GAO SUX

Updated 10/8/07. See below

In Parts 1 and 2 of this report, we looked at the lies, extremes in poor judgement, and skirting of the law in which the Corps New Orleans District regularly trades. Today, we'll expand our focus to what passes for oversight over the Corps, and why that can't even be trusted.

When I heard this past March that, at Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu's request, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) was investigating the floodgate pumps mess, I was hopeful but skeptical. GAO's previous work on Katrina issues has been spotty at best. It seems, based on comparisons to what the Corps internal investigation turned up, that my skepticism was justified.

What GAO gave to Senator Landrieu's office was a steaming turd. It doesn't even track what the Senator asked for in her letter to the GAO. And now that we have the Corps internal investigation in hand, we can see the blatant mistakes by GAO clearly.

The GAO report doesn't mention the numerous contract administration improprieties (including - but not confined to - troubling use of implied authorities by individuals like Jim St. Germain and Dan Bradley who did not possess such authorities), it only glancingly mentions the critical technical difficulties with the hydraulic systems (accepting the inadequate interim fix on the reservoirs as adequate, instead of bringing up the fact that the permanent fix was critical and had not been implemented for nearly a year, and still hasn't been implemented on most of the drive units), and I have to wonder if they even read Ms. Garzino's correspondence and the shop inspection reports. In fact, Ms. Garzino's name inexplicably does not appear anywhere in a report that would not exist without her memo.

In addition, there's zero mention of the continuing non-execution of the performance testing section of the contract, which is at the heart of the cover-up (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this report). In fact, there's only parrotting of the Corps' line: "Any performance problems with the pump systems could be resolved after they were installed on the canals."

Except (and this is only 9 pages later in the GAO report), "According to the Corps, it is not possible to test each pump system for an extended period of time or to test the entire system due to limitations in simulating the amount of water that would be present in the canals and the lake during an actual storm event."

So the performance problems could be resolved later, presumably through contractually-mandated full performance testing. Except that "later," there's no way to actually perform those tests? Huh?

How in the world did the GAO not catch and highlight this clear contradiction in the Corps' statements, especially since it appears the GAO's own report? Why didn't they catch it and perhaps think about whether the Corps ever intended to do that performance testing, or if the Corps has never intended to do it (see the earlier parts of this report)? And then why wouldn't they think about possible motivations for such inaction, and really dig in? Why couldn't they do that bit of thinking?

This is what I mean when I say the GAO investigation is junk. They appear to have taken whatever the Corps New Orleans District handed them and did no critical reasoning on it. Hey GAO, here's critical reasoning on the Corps statement about the impossibility of extended testing of the pumps on site: What about taking the pumps out of their platforms and running them elsewhere, where they could be lowered and raised - thus eliminating the "limitations in simulating the amount of water?" I'm not the first person to think of it. That's exactly what the Corps themselves did last August when the vibration problems emerged! They hooked pumps to a crane and dunked them in the canal at different depths. Surely everyone remembers that. Here's an August 6, 2006 picture of that widely publicized testing, taken from the Corps' own press release (dated December 1, 2006) (it also flashes by in the multi-image GIF on the Corps New Orleans Hurricane Protection Office front page, which is where I got the date):

The caption cracks me up. It makes it seem like this was routine testing, not everyone at the Corps and MWI grasping at straws.

You can see the drive unit for the pump on the deck at the lower left of the photo behind the mist cloud. Now, if this was possible last August, why couldn't a barge be rigged up with a crane (to raise and lower the pump), some kind of framework (to hold the pump), and a set of appropriately long discharge piping in which to measure flow? And why couldn't such a system be run for a legitimately long amount of time to measure the entire range of flows and heads, as well as a long enough time to simulate storm conditions?

The answer is: of course it could, but I'm sure MWI would refuse to do it, even though they are contractually obligated to do so. Because it costs too much. And the Corps New Orleans District refuses to do it because it would show how poor their contract administration has been, i.e. they've paid millions of taxpayer dollars for equipment which does not meet spec. (Side question: I wonder if MWI paid for all the crane rental time, labor, and materials for the testing shown in the photo above?)

And that's how you do critical reasoning.

There's even flat-out lies in the GAO report that should have been obvious. On Adobe page 35, there's a chart of Orleans Avenue canal capacity dating back to June of 2006:

It shows a constant capacity for Orleans at just under 2000 cfs from June, 2006 until mid-May of this year, when there's a small, unexplained bump up to just over 2000 cfs. I'd like to know how the Corps could have gotten 2000 cfs out of 10 pumps at Orleans when five of them were sitting out of the water up on the deck from October, 2006 through March, 2007, 2007 (read the linked blog entries for more details and pictures):

The year on the picture above should have read "2007." Oops.

Yes, I understand that the period the pumps were out at Orleans was outside the height of hurricane season. But the pumps weren't even in the damn water for over six months! When basic, easily checkable facts like that are screwed up, why should the rest of the GAO investigation carry any credibility?

The whole GAO thing seems less like an investigation and more like a mistake-ridden, propaganda-laced summary of current conditions. GAO themselves needs to be investigated by their inspector general to determine how Senator Landrieu could write the following as their marching orders...
"I request that the Government Accountability Office immediately undertake an investigation of the Army Corps of Engineers rationale for the the installation of faulty flood control pumps despite the internal memoranda indicating their insufficiency for the task. Furthermore, the investigation should examine the contract arrangements with the company in question and should determine whether or not any improprieties exist in the award or fulfillment of these contracts."

...and then the GAO could interpret/twist that into the following "questions to be answered:"
"- What were the specifications and requirements of the contract and what was the basis for the selection of the supplier for the pump systems?
- In light of the factory test failures known to the Corps, why did it install the pump systems?
- What pumping capacity existed on June 1, 2006, and what actions has the Corps taken to address the known problems with the pump systems?
- What is the current pumping capacity at the drainage canals and what are the Corps’ plans to increase capacity during the 2007 hurricane season?"

They're kinda close, but GAO's missing a large chunk of what the Senator asked for. Where are the GAO's questions about the contract arrangements and improprieties in the fulfillment of the contract? "Fulfillment" entails looking at the entire span of the contract (which means up to the day GAO issued their report), not the "basis for selection of the supplier." That is a tremendous narrowing of the scope of the Senator's request, and GAO needs to be taken to task for it.

Why is there zero mention of the substantial improprieties on the financial and contract administration side of the project? The Corps internal investigation uncovered suspiciously inadequate record-keeping, an uncooperative Contracting Officer, and millions of dollars in payments to MWI that couldn't (or wouldn't) be accounted for. Isn't that precisely what the General Accountability Office should have also found? After all, they've got the word "account" right there in their name.

Even taking the GAO's questions on their own terms, how can they ask their last question about current pumping capacity without mentioning the persistent, documented capacity shortfalls revealed by Corps-overseen testing in April 2006, November 2006, and once again in April 2007? The November 2006 and April 2007 testing was performed at the behest of the Corps internal investigative team. GAO themselves say they met with "members of the Mississippi Valley Division’s independent team reviewing issues related to the contract and pump performance." If they listened at all to that team, how could GAO not reach the same conclusions (on all matters, not just capacities) the internal team was reaching?

You can probably see that I think very little of the GAO investigation. I can say now that while they were investigating in March, April and May, they were reading this blog every day, sometimes for hours at a stretch. That gave me limited hopes, because one of the reasons I started blogging was to make documents easily available to the eventual investigations I knew would come. Even today, someone at the GAO checks in regularly. How they got from what I've reported to their stuff is a mystery. And when you consider the everlasting, gob-stopping treasure trove of the Corps internal investigation (which is light years beyond any of my little rhetorical bottle rockets), the GAO report is measurably inferior.

There's only three possibilities for the radical differences between the GAO's report and the Corps internal investigation:

1) GAO didn't get access to the same data the Corps internal team did. This is very, very unlikely, despite what they told Senator Landrieu's office. There's no way GAO could have written a report without looking at the contract, the modifications, and the correspondence. Also, did they not request the same documents the Corps internal team was using?

2) The Corps and GAO had access to the same data, but GAO actively ignored it for some unknown reason. This is the scariest possibility, because is speaks to a compromised investigatory process.

3) The Corps and GAO looked at the same data, but GAO didn't realize its significance. In other words, the GAO team was incompetent.

In any case, whatever the reason for the inadequacy of the GAO report, the consequence is clear. It has muddied the waters into what happened, extending the cover-up. Indeed, after its release, both MWI and Colonel Bedey crowed about how they were in the clear.

MWI (in the May 21st Palm Beach Post letters to the editor):
"...The Associated Press further reported on Thursday that Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said an investigation and forthtcoming [sic] report by the Government Accountability Office found no evidence of fraud or improper influence in the pump project."

Colonel Bedey (in the May 17th AP article about the briefing GAO gave Senator Landrieu's office):
"'We always said there was no smoking gun,' Col. Jeffrey Bedey, who is overseeing reconstruction of the city's levee system for the corps, said in reaction to the report."

As we now know from the internal investigation, there's an armory of smoking guns. GAO either ignored them or was told to ignore them.

In some ways, I wish the GAO had just kept their own counsel. Fortunately, Senator Landrieu is the chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee that controls GAO's budget, so GAO had better do a much more thorough job when they dig back into this fiasco. And, as I mentioned above, I hope the GAO Inspector General takes a close look at this one too. It's certainly destroyed my faith in yet another agency of the government, which I didn't think was possible after all that Katrina has wrought.

Update, 10/8/07:
After the internal came out, and it became readily apparent that the GAO investigation was inadequate, Senator Landrieu said she strongly encouraged GAO to revisit their findings:
"...the GAO must keep digging to ensure that Congress and the people of New Orleans have the truth"
That press release is here. That was on June 8th.

It took a while, but the GAO did restart their inquiry. Oddly, it was MWI themselves that first revealed this publicly. On September 12, 2007, they responded to an article posted on a website called CorpWatch around Katrina's 2nd anniversary. The original article summarized the pump story to date. MWI's response attempted to rebut it, and accidentally revealed:
"The GAO is now in the process of pursuing an additional inquiry and we welcome
the opportunity to meet with them again."

I seriously doubt they "welcomed" the opportunity to be investigated, but that's standard corporate-speak.

This was confirmed on October 8th, along with some other huge news:

Times-Picayune, Monday, October 8:
Third probe of pumps on canals requested

Associated Press, Monday, October 8:
Report: New Orleans pump contract likely handled improperly

Ms. Garzino went to the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal investigatory agency. Her referral raised enough eyebrows at OSC that they ordered Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to further investigate the entire imbroglio. Going through OSC provides an extra degree of protection to ensure the integrity of the investigation.

The existence of the Defense Department investigation was revealed by an illegal leak of its existence from within the Pentagon to a whistleblower group called PEER. Their source has likely lost his or her job, because PEER did not bother to submit a FOIA request for the documents they leaked to the Times-Picayune. Had they done so, their source would have been protected, and the DoD investigation would have likely gone a lot smoother.

Be that as it may, the documents they gave to the Times-Picayune are attached to their October 8, 2007 press release here. The direct link to the documents is here.


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