Engineers' scheme put lives at risk

Published May 2, 2007

Shame is not a concept the Army Corps of Engineers understands. Its reputation already tarnished by its failure to protect New Orleans residents during Katrina, the corps is now being accused of rigging a $32-million bid last year for massive drainage pumps on the city's canals. The corps wasn't very clever in its chicanery, either. Bid specifications were taken almost word for word from the winning company's pump catalog, including an error in terminology.

This shameful transaction, uncovered by the Associated Press, only gets worse in the details. The winning bidder was Moving Water Industries, a Florida company with political connections and a checkered past. MWI's owner, J. David Eller, is a major Republican Party donor and friend of former Gov. Jeb Bush. In fact, the two were once business partners a decade ago when MWI made a legally questionable sale to Nigeria using $74-million in taxpayer-backed loans. In a lawsuit that is still unsettled, Eller was accused of transporting suitcases filled with money out of the country.

And there's more. A corps inspector found the New Orleans pumps supplied by MWI to be defective. So did the corps cancel its contract and seek reimbursement? No. It bought six more pumps from MWI to cover for the defective ones.

A whistle-blower noticed the bid irregularities. Not only were the pump specifications taken almost word for word from the MWI catalog, but the corps even repeated an error from the catalog, requiring some parts to be made of "abrasive resistance steel." The correct term is "abrasion resistant steel."

So it is no coincidence that MWI was the only company to have the pump engines on order when bids were sought. Yet corps officials still refuse to admit that anything unseemly occurred. MWI "took a big risk" by ordering the engines ahead of winning the bid, Cindy Nicholas, the corps officer who handled the bids, told AP.

Now we know why MWI was so confidant. The Government Accountability Office is reportedly investigating the contract, but Congress shouldn't let it go at that. Public hearings are in order.

Americans cannot afford a business-as-usual attitude at the Corps of Engineers. Not only are tax dollars at risk. So are lives.