More than 1,000 military families in Hawaii have been stuck in hotels through the holidays after jet fuel from underground storage tanks leaked into a well that supplied their on-base homes with potable water — a development that capped a year of housing headaches for the Defense Department.
The water woes at Hawaii’s Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam are only the latest in a swirl of housing issues bedeviling the Pentagon, such as mold found in barracks on several bases and allegations of corruption among contractors that have played a major role in providing military dwellings since a privatization drive in the 1990s.
Last week saw Balfour Beatty Communities, one of the largest of the contractors managing private housing on bases around the country, plead guilty in federal court to pocketing millions of dollars in performance bonuses for home repair work that was never done.
While unrelated to the Pearl Harbor developments, the case underscored the depths of the wider housing issues facing the military. Balfour Beatty Communities, which oversees housing on more than 50 bases, was sentenced to pay more than $65 million in fines and restitution for the fraud scheme.
“This pervasive fraud was a consequence of [the company’s] broken corporate culture, which valued profit over the welfare of service members,” Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco said in a statement.
To obtain its bonuses under contracts with the Pentagon, the company was required to submit proof that it had satisfied performance objectives, including maintenance of housing communities and resident satisfaction.
According to the Justice Department, company employees “altered or manipulated data in property management software and destroyed and falsified resident comment cards to falsely inflate these metrics and, ultimately, to fraudulently induce the service branches to pay performance incentive fees which [the company] had not earned.”
Balfour Beatty Communities has acknowledged the outcome of the federal case, saying the company is “committed to the highest standards of ethical conduct.”
“The wrongdoing that took place is completely contrary to the way the company expects its people to behave,” the company said in a statement. “It has been made clear to all employees that breaches of policies, procedures, or law will not be tolerated.”
In addition to the hefty fine, the company will be on probation for three years and engage an “independent compliance monitor,” the Justice Department said.
Some military members aren’t satisfied.
“They plead guilty to $35 million in fraud and the [government] is okay with them continuing to provide housing for the troops?” one service member close to retirement wrote on the social media platform Reddit under the username IntelligentBag6705.
Another Reddit poster, writing under the username Kencwes91, said the housing privatization drive is a failure. “What they should do is give military housing back to military command,” Kencwes91 wrote. “This was part of the garrison commander’s job — to ensure safe and adequate housing for service members and their dependents.”
Houston attorney Jim Moriarty, a Vietnam veteran and Gold Star father, represents a number of military families in litigation against various companies contracted by the Pentagon to provide military housing. He said the companies are able to get away with defrauding the families by using money to influence Congress and by hiring former high-ranking military officers to influence the Pentagon.
As a result, the cases rarely go to trial and are settled out of court. If the cases did go to trial, Mr. Moriarty said he is confident his clients would win even bigger settlements. “A jury would be beyond outraged at what [these companies] are doing to our military families,” he told The Washington Times in an interview.
Mr. Moriarty said seven inches of human waste backed up and had accumulated under the home of one of his clients at an Air Force base in San Antonio. When family members became sick, he said, the contractor merely nailed shut the access panel leading under the home.
“They just want to extract every ounce of profit they possibly can,” Mr. Moriarty said.
Lawsuits targeting military housing companies have been filed across the country — from Fort Meade in Maryland to the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, where pervasive mold in homes has sickened children and ruined belongings.
According to court documents, Navy Commander Louis D’Antonio and Marine Corps Maj. Ryan Keller accused the housing companies of failing to ensure their homes on base were habitable before the families moved in.
Mr. Moriarty is also involved in that lawsuit, which names Monterey Military Housing LLC as the defendant.
He lamented that families stuck in subpar housing situations have little support.
“These families are trying to raise their children in safety while their husbands and wives are serving the country,” he said. “Nobody looks after them and nobody takes care of them. It truly is a profit over people issue to them.”
Mr. Moriarty said two developments could work to pressure contractors to more adequately address housing problems: Allow military families to withhold their housing allowance if the homes the families are assigned to are not up to standards and require contractors to certify under oath that the properties are habitable before anyone moves in.
“Congress,” Mr. Moriarty said, “is scared to death and the military is scared to death of giving these families any power.”
But despite the perceived influence over lawmakers by the contractors, Congress has raised questions about problems with military housing.
Sen. Thom Tillis, North Carolina Republican, recently made headlines by saying he was contacted by a soldier from Fort Bragg about mold in the soldier’s barracks that more senior officials at the Army base reportedly refused to address.
“Allowing soldiers to live in moldy and unsafe housing is a danger to the country,” Mr. Tillis wrote in letter last week to Army Secretary Christine Wormuth.
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act also created a requirement for the establishment of a military family “resident advocate” position across the Defense Department. The position is intended to enhance communication and resolve issues among residents, contractors and officials involved in military housing.
It remains to be seen how effective the measure will be, particularly at bases that have the added hurdle of aging infrastructure, such as the World War II-era fuel storage tank believed to be at the root of the problems that have unfolded at the Pearl Harbor base.
The Navy took action only after dozens living in housing on the base had complained that their water was making them sick and smelled like fuel. The Navy is working to flush the water lines around the base’s housing area as part of an effort to restore clean drinking water.
The need could not be more pressing. As the home of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command, the installations in Hawaii are crucial to the nation’s global defense posture.