KBR Director of Government Relations Marit Babin addressed the Hays County Commissioners Court. Photos by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
A routine execution of a professional services contract turned into a political statement at the Hays County Commissioners Court Tuesday morning, where the court wound up taking no action on an item to approve an engineering contract for KBR.
Two combat veterans of the war in Iraq testified against giving the FM 110 engineering services contract to KBR, Inc. Rather than execute the contract, the court decided to give sponsoring Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe (D-San Marcos) time to decide if she wants to again propose giving the contract to KBR.
KBR, a Houston-based engineering, procurement and construction firm, has been in the news in recent months for charges ranging from bribery of foreign government officials to endangering their own employees and U.S. troops serving in Iraq. Pending litigation against KBR involves allegations including human trafficking, purposely 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.
“I personally watched KBR ship empty trucks around Iraq,” Hays County resident Bryan Hannah told the court. Hannah served in Baghdad from 2006 to 2008.
“I put my life on the line to escort those empty trucks and make a profit for this company,” Hannah said.
KBR pleaded guilty in February to bribing Nigerian officials loyal to General Sani Abacha, whose government controversially put nine human rights activists to death in 1995. Former KBR CEO Albert Stanley was involved in the bribery scheme, which garnered KBR contracts worth more than $6 billion. Stanley pleaded guilty in September to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).
On March 5, two citizens of the United Kingdom were each charged with one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA and 10 counts of violating the FCPA. KBR agreed to pay the U.S. government $402 million, the “largest fine ever in (an FCPA) prosecution,” according to the U.S. Department of Justice. KBR and its former parent company Halliburton jointly agreed to pay $177 million in disgorgement of profits relating to the bribery scheme. Eight KBR employees working in Iraq and Afghanistan were convicted of offenses including fraud, money laundering, fraud conspiracy, bribery, and breaking anti-kickback laws.
KBR is under investigation by the Army Criminal Investigation Command in the electrocution death 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. Since 2003, there have been at least 18 electrocutions in Iraq. No charges have been filed against any company or individual in connection with the deaths.
Gregory Foster, who served in Kuwait and Baghdad for a year, said commissioners should do more research on companies they are thinking of hiring.
“My father once told me, ‘Son, your dollar votes; if you don’t like the way a company does business, then don’t do business with them,'” Foster said. “I believe I speak for many of us here in Hays County when I say, ‘We don’t like the way KBR does business. We don’t want to give them any more of our money.’ I would like to ask the court to postpone making a decision on this contract.”
KBR sent its Director of Government Relations, Marit Babin, to the Tuesday meeting to address the concerns of residents and commissioners.
“I’d like to remind you all that we are a contractor,” Babin said. “I understand that — I see (people) with buttons here, anti-war and those sorts of things. We have nothing to do with that. We find a contract and we’re doing a job that the military asked us to do. We’re very proud of the job that we’re doing and we’re honored to support the troops. We provide them with a variety of services: food, shelter … laundry services, many of the comforts of home so that they can pass the challenges and the dangerous mission that they’re there to perform.”
Babin called Stanley “an unfortunate chapter of our past history,” and said he was fired immediately after allegations against him were substantiated.
“There is absolutely no one now in the company who was involved in any way in that incident,” Babin said. “And we have taken substantial measures to make sure that nothing like that will ever happen. KBR is a stand-alone company now and has been for two years, and we have a stringent code of ethics that all of our employees and officers adhere to.”
Foster read a letter from Jude Prather, a failed 2007 San Marcos City Council candidate now serving in Iraq. Prather recently announced his intention to run for an unspecified seat in the 2009 city council race. Prather’s letter is as follows:
“To: the Citizens of Hays County and our esteemed members of the Hays County Court
From: Specialist Jude Prather of the 100th Battalion 442nd Infantry Regiment
I write to you today (not only) as an infantryman serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom, but also as a concerned citizen of Hays County. As my fellow veteran brothers and sisters have probably already addressed the long and appalling list of what KBR has done in the name of greed, I shall not waste any time in listing the long, awful laundry list of acts this company has done while over here in Operation Iraqi Freedom. But I can tell you, over here my job is to escort KBR supply trucks from supply centers in Kuwait to destinations throughout Iraq. In doing so, we live in KBR tents, eat in KBR chow halls, shower in KBR trailers (in which we pray we don’t end up being electrocuted to death like many other soldiers), and see that KBR and other contractors are more numerous that soldiers. When I posed the question to my convoy escort team, ‘Would you give KBR a contract to build a road for your city or county?’ it was a unanimous response, more colorful than would be appropriate to repeat in the court. But the men I serve with, along with myself, strongly believe that we should never give KBR another dime of our taxpayer’s money. Thank you and God Bless.”
Said Hays County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley), “I was wondering why — I think Dannenbaum (Engineering) originally had the design contract for FM 110, right? And that is, I think, the only contractor we haven’t put back to work from those that we stopped a couple years ago … I guess the question I have is why are we not moving forward with Dannenbaum? I mean, since they originally had the contract with the county, why are we not moving forward with them?”
Ingalsbe replied that KBR was already working on the City of San Marcos’ portion of the McCarty Lane project near the FM 110 project.
“We felt it would be a smooth transition,” Inbalsbe said. “(Hays County Engineer) Jerry Borcherding, Mike Weaver (of Prime Strategies) and I reviewed proposals and felt confident, and a decision was made to move prior to knowledge of all of this. They had good references. As I said earlier, I did not look further. I did what I believed is our normal procedure to look at engineering firms. And I think we all felt very confident in choosing KBR. But I will say when I was interviewed (by Newstreamz.com in February) and learned of this, it did concern me, and as I hear people speak today, it is concerning.”
Ingalsbe warned that the FM 110 project, part of the countywide $207 million road bond package passed by voters in November, had already been delayed and should not be postponed much longer.
“Yet, I do feel that I’d like at least a week to speak with legal counsel and our engineers and discuss just a little further the contract and maybe the responsibilities that we have,” Ingalsbe said. “I do appreciate the men and women who serve our country, and I really appreciate you all being here and sharing those concerns with us.”
Hays County Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) acknowledged Babin’s warning to commissioners to refrain from believing everything published about KBR.
“But it is disturbing,” said Barton. “Some of the history is disturbing. Allegations from Hays County residents who served overseas are disturbing enough (that) I think, Commissioner (Ingalsbe), just that you’re wise just to take that little extra time to make sure we understand the situation and make sure that this is our right partner. I have a lot of trust in our staff, I have a lot of trust in your judgment in the court. I will feel comfortable with what you call. I appreciate the diligence you did in bringing forward an engineering company. I also appreciate your larger vision in now wanting to make sure that it is the right overall company.”
Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-San Marcos) said not many companies in the world have the ability to do the kind of work KBR does, and praised the philanthropy of the Browns, founding members of the company.
“I don’t know the details on any of this,” Conley said. “I’m not in the U.S. military, and I’m certainly not up to speed with everything associated with … KBR and Halliburton. But, I’m just trying to put this in perspective. To the men who served our country, thank you for being here today. Y’all live here in Hay County, correct? … Thank you for your service.”
Hays County Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) noted that the county gets “over a hundred responses” to formal requests for proposals of the type KBR and other companies responded to.
“I do think that the fact that (the veterans) had some recent experience with KBR in the Iraq setting was pretty compelling for me,” Ford said. “And I guess my way of thinking is, this is a very volatile issue, and the facts are not going to be easily borne out, and nor do I think that’s our role, to go do fact-finding either way to validate one (view) or validate the other. To my way of thinking, if those are young citizens of Hays County who have been over defending our country and have a strong feeling of and experience about how we spend our tax dollars and who we spend our tax dollars with, and there is a plethora of companies out there who are maybe even more local, and just as capable of doing work in Hays County, then I might defer to that.”
KBR Director of Corporate Communications Heather Browne said her company understands the need for its prospective customers to delve into the firm’s history and current business dealings.
“But for us, we stand by the work that we do in Iraq,” Browne said. “We have a lot of very dedicated employees in Iraq that are doing work at great sacrifice not only to themselves but to their families, that’s done in a very challenging and unpredictable environment. And while we certainly recognize the level of oversight and in some instances, scrutiny that we garner because of our work in Iraq, we consistently have been rated good to excellent in award fee board score — which is what the Army basically rates you because of your work — by the Army, which continues to let us know that we are doing a good job by our customer.”
For more on this story, see this story.
Iraq War veteran Bryan Hannah told Hays County commissioners that he put his life on the line for KBR.
Iraq War veteran Gregory Foster said Hays County taxpayers shouldn’t give money to KBR.Email | Print