Army Corps Engineered Numbers

Athletes compete in the qualifications of the men's 1500-meter race at the World Short Track Speed Skating Championships, in Milan, Italy, Friday, March 9, 2007. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
AP Photo/Luca Bruno
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 blistering Pentagon report released Wednesday.

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 whistle-blower — corps economist Don Sweeney — came forward with allegations that top corps officials had manipulated data to justify the lock project.

The inspector general found that 18 months ago corps brass 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 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.

The charges from Sweeney, who headed the lock project study until he was removed 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 Sweeney's allegations, which have ben echoed by conservation and taxpayer groups that deride the lock expansion proposal as an environmentally harmful boondoggle.

Specifically, investigators found "a preponderance of evidence" against three military leaders of the corps. No criminal violations were alleged.

Among the findings:

  • Maj. Gen. Russell Fuhrman, second in charge at the corps, voiced disappointment with the preliminary determination and stated his preference that large-scale construction would be justified.

    Combined with an earlier pronouncement that the corps should be an advocate for improving the nation's navigation system, he took "the first step in the development of a climate that led to abandonment of objectivity."

  • Maj. Gen. Phillip Anderson, the corps' Mississippi Valley division commander, contributed to that climate, and gave improper access to the barge industry.
  • Col. James V. Mudd, commander of the corps' Rock Island District responsible for the study, personally directed that a key statistic be changed to show positive net benefits for the project.
  • The three officials denied wrongdoing in testimony included in the report, as have corps officials since the allegations surfaced. However, the corps recently decided to delay the lock study's completion by at least a year to replace faulty economic forecasts.
The Army report, which relied primarily on internal e-mail correspondence and interviews with 38 witnesses, will be forwarded the White House and Congress for review.

"I'm heartened that the process seems to have worked. That feels good," Sweeney said. "I'm reassured that the Army could investigate themselves and do what I think is a thorough, complete job."

However, at least one federal agency believes the Pentagon's report was incomplete.

In a letter transmitting the report to the president, the Office of Special Counsel said it "does not comply with statutory regulations" because it fails to list criminal violations or address all the accusations against the corps and didn't describe steps the Pentagon has taken to correct the problems.

The OSC also faults the reports conclusions for why Sweeney was reassigned. According to the OSC, the Pentagon attributed it to concerns over the "timeliness of his work," while the OSC believes it's possible that Sweeney was bounced for his unfavorable report on the project.