Top Army Corps of Engineers officials rigged data to justify a proposed $1 billion lock expansion on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, according to a Pentagon report released yesterday.
More broadly, the 10-month investigation by the Army’s inspector general found “strong indications” that intense pressure from the corps’ top ranks resulted in an agency-wide bias toward favorable evaluations for all river construction projects.
“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.
Corps spokesman Ron Fournier said the agency had not seen the report and had no comment.
The corps, an Army branch with a $4 billion budget for flood control and river-navigation construction, recommends that Congress fund its projects after analyzing which ones have the most net benefit to taxpayers.
The Army inspector general began its investigation after a whistleblower corps economist Don Sweeney came forward with charges that top corps officials had manipulated data to justify the lock project.
The inspector general found that 18 months ago top corps officials ordered alterations to a $54 million analysis of the future needs of the upper Mississippi River navigation system, even though they knew the changes were mathematically flawed.
The intention, the investigation found, was to reverse the seven-year study’s preliminary determination that the cost of lengthening seven locks on the two rivers would far outweigh the economic rewards.
The report also concluded that politically connected shipping and agribusiness companies, which want lock expansions for speedier river passage, were improperly given preferential access to the process even to the point of being assigned to calculate economic benefits for inclusion in the study.
Investigators said the corps officials’ behavior was prompted by a desire to boost the agency’s construction budget and a tendency to treat the barge industry as a customer.
Those influences “combined to create an atmosphere where objectivity in its analyses was placed in jeopardy,” the report said.
The controversy was ignited in February when Mr. Sweeney filed an affidavit with the federal Office of Special Counsel, which determined there was “a substantial likelihood” of wrongdoing and directed the Army inspector general to investigate.
A letter accompanying the report from OSC chief Elaine Kaplan declared the report documented “evidence of serious misconduct and improprieties.” Still, she found the investigation lacking because it did not, as required, include the actions the Pentagon intends to take to address the findings and did not adequately address several of Mr. Sweeney’s specific charges.
The Army released a statement saying it has asked the head of the corps, Lt. Gen. Robert Flowers, to submit within 60 days recommended changes to the project-evaluation process. The Army vice chief of staff also has been directed to take action against accused military officers “as he deems appropriate.”
The charges from Mr. Sweeney, who was placed in a different corps job after the preliminary conclusions, also led to congressional hearings and prompted the Army to ask the National Academy of Sciences to review the study. That report is expected in February.
The Army’s report exonerated six corps officials, but validated the crux of Mr. Sweeney’s allegations, which have been echoed by conservation and taxpayer groups that deride the lock-expansion proposal as an environmentally harmful boondoggle.