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Hays County Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) motioned for the commissioners to cancel a road engineering deal with KBR. Photos by Andy Sevilla.
By SEAN BATURA
Under pressure from Hays County residents for the past two weeks, county commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to reverse a decision they made in February to award KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root) an engineering design services contract worth more than $600,000.
“I’m really glad you guys made the right decision,” Hays County resident and Iraq War combat veteran Bryan Hannah said to commissioners after the vote. Hannah, who served in the 1st Calvary Division in Iraq for 15 months, said he risked his life to escort empty KBR trucks during his tour of duty.
“I think it’s really great that we aren’t waiting for the government on a national level to get its act together, but we’re setting a precedent for the country,” Hannah said.
After Hannah and Iraq War veteran Gregory Foster voiced their criticism of KBR at a March 24 commissioners court meeting during which the county was expected to execute the contract, the court instead decided to give Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) time to reconsider moving forward with KBR.
KBR pleaded guilty to charges of bribing loyalists to Nigerian General Sani Abacha in February. Abacha’s government executed nine human rights activists in 1995. Among other controversies, KBR also is under investigation by the U.S. Army’s Criminal Investigative Command for the death of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, who was electrocuted in a shower.
Ingalsbe was on the selection committee that chose KBR for work on FM 110/San Marcos Loop, which is in her precinct. Tuesday, she decided against the selection, motioning to rescind the KBR contract and instead negotiate an agreement with S & B Construction, LTD. Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) seconded the motion.
“I think that they were very capable of doing the work, but I believe that the concerns were enough for me to really revisit that and reconsider that,” Ingalsbe said.
An audience that grew too large for the available seating in the courtroom broke into applause as commissioners finished their unanimous vote.
“The message I want to send is, ‘You will be held accountable to the American people for your unethical and criminal acts,’” said Foster, who served for a year in Kuwait and Baghdad as a member of the 1st Armored Division.
“We are disappointed with the Commissioner’s decision,” said KBR Director of Corporate Communications Heather L. Browne in an emailed statement. “KBR has a solid track record of high-quality construction and infrastructure work that could serve the county well on this project. Hays County conducted an open and transparent process to select an engineering team for this assignment and determined that the KBR Team was best qualified. It is regrettable that this decision was apparently overturned because of misrepresentations of KBR’s performance on matters completely unrelated to this engineering assignment.”
KBR, a Houston-based, procurement and construction firm that does business worldwide, was the face of Halliburton in Iraq before becoming a separate company in 2007. Plaintiffs involved in ongoing litigation against KBR have alleged the company has engaged in human trafficking, knowingly sending unarmed employees into a dangerous combat zone (the “Good Friday Massacre”), exposing employees and national guardsmen to carcinogenic sodium dichromate and covering up evidence of rapes of its employees.
Former KBR CEO Albert Stanley was involved in the bribery scheme in Nigeria, which garnered contracts from Abacha’s regime worth more than $6 billion. Stanley pleaded guilty in September to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and KBR agreed to pay the U.S. government $402 million, the “largest fine ever in (an FCPA) prosecution,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice press release.
KBR and former parent company Halliburton jointly agreed to pay $177 million in disgorgement of profits relating to the bribery scheme. In circumstances unrelated to the Nigerian bribery case, seven KBR employees working in Iraq and Afghanistan have been convicted since 2005 of offenses including major fraud, money laundering, fraud conspiracy and breaking anti-kickback laws.
On March 31, a federal judge ruled against KBR’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought against it by relatives of Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth, who died when an electrical current coursed through pipes into his shower water in the Radwaniyah Palace Complex in Baghdad. Plaintiffs in the case allege KBR’s electrical maintenance of the facility was substandard and negligent. KBR denies responsibility for the soldier’s death, which is under investigation by the Army Criminal Investigation Command. No charges have been filed against any company or individual in connection with at least 18 electrocutions that have occurred in Iraq since 2003.
In response to allegations related to ongoing litigation and the Maseth investigation, Heather Browne wrote that “KBR is proud of the work it performs in Iraq,” and praised the company’s employees, who she said “perform their work at great sacrifice to themselves and their families.” Browne said KBR is a company committed to doing business with integrity.
“Our customer, the US Army remains satisfied with our work, as evident by our award fee board scores that have consistently ranged from good to excellent,” Browne wrote. “When issues have been raised about our work, we have fully cooperated with the government to quickly resolve them.”
Said Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos), “I think it is responsible for us, while these allegations are going through proper channels, that we move forward on our project with a firm or company that does not have those allegations out there, and we can move forward with clear conscience … in understanding that we’re not part of it, and we’re not a part of it here in Hays County. But, for the record, I do realize this (issue) is part of an anti-war sentiment. And my vote today has nothing to do with anti-war sentiment in Iraq or Afghanistan.”
At the March 24 commissioners court meeting, Foster read aloud a letter from Jude Prather, a candidate for the San Marcos City Council. Prather, who is serving in Iraq as a member of the 100th Battalion 442nd Infantry Regiment, lost his 2007 bid for the San Marcos City Council by three votes.
“The men I serve with, along with myself, strongly believe that we should never give KBR another dime of our taxpayer’s money,” wrote Prather.
Daniel Scales, husband of San Marcos City Council candidate Lisa Marie Coppoletta, addressed the commissioners on behalf of his wife.
“Through your (example), I think we can show the city that they also need to do their homework before (giving) contracts to companies like KBR,” Scales said. “It’s not just KBR … We should have a set of ethics (standards), where we could vet out the companies.”
Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) said he plans “within the next few weeks” to present a proposal that would revise the selection criteria according to which companies are awarded contracts. New criteria may require an assessment of a company’s past ethical behavior.
“I think we heard serious allegations raised about the company’s performance overseas and elsewhere that raised legitimate questions about their qualifications as a professional firm,” Barton said. “For me, ethics is part of qualifications, but there need to be some broader things that you can point to before you just … disbar a company. And particularly when we have already moved forward down the approval process, and when that’s not a standard part of our contracts — yet.”
State law requires counties and municipalities to choose the lowest responsible bidder for construction work, though they have more latitude in hiring companies for professional services, like design and engineering work.
The City of San Marcos hired KBR for at least five different projects in the last five years. KBR is doing design work for the city’s Wonder World Extension and McCarty Lane projects.
“I would be willing to consider looking at ethical behavior of companies,” said San Marcos City Councilmember Kim Porterfield after the commissioners court meeting. “That’s important to me.”
Continued Porterfield, “I think it’s only fair to judge a company for services or individuals on what you’ve told them you’re going to judge them on. So I think that would be a fair way to do it, like what Commissioner Barton is proposing, to add that to the list of qualifications…because sometimes governments do business with companies like AIG.”
Porterfield declined to say whether she would vote to hire KBR in the future.