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Feds Say Army Officials Rigged Data

December 7, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Critics who long have claimed that Army Corps of Engineers projects are environmentally harmful, money-wasting boondoggles say a scathing new Pentagon report on the agency should open some eyes on Capitol Hill.

An Army inspector general investigation released Wednesday confirmed whistle-blower allegations that three top corps officials doctored a case for spending $1 billion to expand barge locks on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers.

Conservation and taxpayer groups said they hoped the report would boost efforts to change how the corps does business.

``This is an opportunity,″ said corps economist Don Sweeney, who made the allegations that prompted the probe. ``Things that people have suspected for years now have been elevated to the light of day. ... Some good things could happen.″

In addition to finding evidence of misconduct involving the proposed lock project, the investigation concluded the officials created ``a climate that led to abandonment of objectivity″ that could affect the evaluation of any river construction project.

``The overall impression conveyed by testimony of corps employees was that some of them had no confidence in the integrity of the corps’ study processes,″ the report said.

It was that broader conclusion _ as well as another that found ``strong indications″ of a culture of bias throughout the corps toward giving construction a green light _ that most heartened corps critics who want additional controls added to the process of evaluating costly, controversial projects.

``The investigation found 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 the taxpayers and the environment,″ said Environmental Defense attorney Tim Searchinger.

Investigators said that bias was caused by a desire to boost the agency’s construction budget, a tendency to treat the barge industry as a customer, and the conflict of interest created by district employees’ jobs depending on obtaining funding for projects from Capitol Hill.

``The Army Corps of Engineers is in serious need of a complete overhaul,″ said Steve Ellis, director of water resources for Taxpayers for Common Sense. ``Hopefully the results of today will remind the corps of that fact, and Congress and the administration will ensure that it is a lesson the corps won’t forget.″

Legislation to require reforms, such as outside review and higher consideration of environmental costs, made little progress in Congress this year _ stymied mostly by the cozy relationship between Capitol Hill and an agency responsible for projects popular back home.

But Army Secretary Louis Caldera has asked the head of the corps, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, to submit within 60 days recommend changes to the project evaluation process.

And though the probe did not find criminal violations by the three officials, the evidence of alleged misconduct by the now-retired second-in-command at the corps, the Mississippi Valley division commander and the now-retired district chief has been forwarded to the Army vice chief of staff to determine disciplinary action.

The three officials denied wrongdoing in testimony included in the report, as have corps officials since the allegations surfaced.

Corps spokesman Ron Fournier said the agency had not seen the report and had no comment. However, the corps recently decided to delay its recommendations to Congress on the lock project by at least a year to replace faulty economic forecasts.

The corps, an Army branch with a $4 billion budget for flood control and river navigation construction, makes recommendations to Congress on which of its projects to fund after analyzing which ones have the most net benefit to taxpayers.

The controversy was ignited in February when Sweeney filed his allegations with the federal Office of Special Counsel, which then directed the Army inspector general to investigate.


On the Net:

Army Corps of Engineers Mississippi-Illinois rivers study: http://www.mvr.usace.army.mil/pdw/nav_study.htm

American Rivers: http://www.americanrivers.org

Midwest Area River Coalition: http://www.marc2000.org

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