Corps of Engineers faces whistleblower charges

Published May 1, 2000

“[There is] substantial likelihood that officials in the Corps [of Engineers] have engaged in violations of law, rule or regulation and a gross waste of funds” said the federal government’s Special Counsel, Elaine Kaplan, after reviewing a 44-page affidavit filed by whistleblower Dr. Donald Sweeney.

Sweeney, an economist formerly employed by the Corps, charges he was replaced by the Corps for disagreeing with its $50 million study to speed up barge traffic on the Mississippi River by enlarging seven barge locks on the river.

Kaplan has referred Sweeney’s charges to Defense Secretary Cohen, who has 60 days to investigate and report back to Kaplan. The Special Counsel’s office reviewed 413 whistleblower charges in 1999 and referred just 15 to the appropriate federal agency for action.

“This is the first assessment by an independent authority, so it is satisfying that the Special Counsel believes it shows a ‘substantial likelihood’ of serious wrongdoing,” said Tim Searchinger, an attorney with Environmental Defense. “The referral of the documents should further spur the Army’s investigation already ordered by Army Secretary Louis Caldera.”

Caldera has asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a review of the navigation study as well as the Corps’ management practices. The seven-year study of the Upper Mississippi and Illinois Waterway was designed to study navigation needs of the waterways. Environmental groups fear more locks will threaten the environment, while farmers and the barge industry say larger locks are needed to prevent congestion on the Mississippi River.

In a separate hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Transportation, Senator Kid Bond (R-Missouri) said “the prosperity of the rural economy depends on having safe, efficient, and reliable transportation alternatives to help expand export markets. The aging locks in question are creating bottlenecks because they are beyond their original design capacity.”

A report recently released by Taxpayers for Common Sense (TCS) and the National Wildlife Federation names 25 of the Corps’ most wasteful projects. “Taxpayers should be outraged by this flagrant misuse of their money,” said TCS Executive Director Ralph DeGennaro. “The Corps of Engineers seems to have a single-minded purpose–to expand its empire on the back of the American taxpayer.”

The TCS study comes amid ongoing hearings before the Senate Environment Committee, where Joseph Westphal, Assistant Under Secretary of the Army for Civil Works, came under questioning when he said he did not know about the Corps’ “Program Growth Initiative”–a plan to boost the agency’s current $4 billion budget by 50 percent.

“This situation is completely unacceptable,” admonished committee chairman Bob Smith (R-New Hampshire). “How can you run the agency?” he asked Westphal.

But Corps Chief of Engineers Lt. Gen. Joe Ballard told the committee Westphal had not seen the Initiative because it was a document in progress and had not yet been submitted to Westphal. The growth strategy had been outlined in a slide presentation to military leaders but had not been presented to the Corps’ civilian managers.

The growth strategy does not outline the needs of the civil works programs, but rather cites past performance as justification for future spending. It identifies such impediments to growth as a poor relationship with the Clinton-Gore administration and the departure of allies from important committees on Capital Hill.

“I assure you that when all the facts are in,” said Ballard, “the integrity of the Corps will be intact, and you will know that the trust you have traditionally placed in the Corps is well founded.”