Monday, April 5, 2004

Construction around the Washington Monument to prevent terrorist attacks is damaging the National Mall and proceeding under an illegal contract, says a preservation group that is calling for an investigation.

The National Coalition to Save Our Mall said the National Park Service is exploiting fears of a terrorist attack to restrict access to the Mall, and wants the Interior Department’s inspector general to investigate the 1998 contract and numerous additional work orders issued before and after September 11, 2001.

The organization began in 2000 to protect the Mall against projects, including the World War II memorial, that it thought would block the vista.

The project to build walls and walkways around the monument and a proposed visitor center have pushed a $5 million spending cap to $40 million, the organization said.

“Apparently they are above the law,” said organization President Judy Scott Feldman. “The legal restrictions on using public monies and contracting is being ignored rather blatantly.”

The Park Service maintains that the construction is a necessary response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, but the original restoration project was completed in 2000. The first “task order” to extend the contract to build a security facility to screen visitors was June 2001, three months before the terrorist attacks.

Other security construction orders were attached to the contract in November 2001, and the coalition said it should have been reissued for competitive bids.

“This kind of contract is blatantly illegal,” said the organization’s attorney, Joseph West.

Instead of building a boundary wall at the sidewalk street level to block trucks carrying explosives, the wall will be built in the middle of the lawn, which critics say will impede pedestrian traffic flow.

The Park Service began plans for a visitor center in 1993, but Congress last fall passed a measure to block its construction. A Park Service spokesman said the contract was negotiated out of the Denver Service Center.

The Park Service has come under increased scrutiny by Congress, which called for the elimination of foreign junkets to save money after a memo surfaced that threatened to cut park services.

The inspector general opened a separate investigation days ago into the fund raising and bidding practices to reopen the Statue of Liberty, which closed after the September 11 attacks. The Senate Finance Committee yesterday announced it also will investigate the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, which has $30 million but is soliciting new donations to get the $7 million needed for security work this summer.

“The endowment was not established to fund daily operations or major capital projects. Rather, those funds were set aside to help care for the monuments for posterity,” said Peg Zitko, foundation spokeswoman.

An official close to the investigation questioned why the foundation is sitting on the cash.

“In the aftermath of September 11, we have to close the memorial because of known deficiencies in security and fire and it takes money to fix it. If not this, what would trigger the use of that money in the trust fund?” the official said.

The Senate committee already is investigating the financial practices of private foundations. Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican and chairman of the committee, said major endowments are paying executives six-figure salaries while spending little on their stated missions. Stephen A. Briganti, chairman of the Statue of Liberty foundation, has an annual salary of $345,000.

“Some of these foundations seem to exist only to perpetuate themselves. Unfortunately, it looks like the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation might be in that category,” Mr. Grassley said.

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