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Senior Democrat says decision to demote Halliburton worker will chill whistleblowing

RAW STORY

The top U.S. Army contracting official who first raised criticism over Halliburton's no-bid contract in Iraq was demoted Sunday for what the army called poor job performance -- the first time her performance was rated low in 20 years.

Today, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) blasted the Bush administration’s decision to fire the lead government whistleblower in a statement to RAW STORY. Democrats also sent a letter to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld today demanding an explanation. The letter follows this article.

“Secretary Rumsfeld has lowered the axe on someone courageous enough to speak the truth about an abuse of taxpayer dollars," he remarked. "Ms. Greenhouse was simply being honest, which seems to be enough to get you fired in this Administration.

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"This action is meant to send a chilling message to other federal workers: keep your mouth shut," he added.

Lautenberg has repeatedly called for Senate hearings to investigate Halliburton’s contracts, but the Republican leadership of Congress has declined to hold any inquiries.

“Instead of getting to the truth of these contracts, this Administration wants to get rid of anybody who tells the truth,” Lautenberg said.

The official, Bunnatine "Bunny" Greenhouse, had overseen contracts at the Army Corps of Engineers, which has managed Iraq reconstruction work. She was removed Saturday from her elite Senior Executive Service position and reassigned her to a lesser job in the civil works division.

Greenhouse's lawyer, Michael Kohn, told the New York Times he saw "obvious reprisal" for the objections she raised to a series of decisions involving the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown Root, which has netted more than $20 billion for work in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"She is being demoted because of her strict adherence to procurement requirements and the army's preference to sidestep them when it suits their needs," he said Sunday.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean also weighed in, saying, "Today's news regarding Bunnatine Greenhouse is another disturbing example of the Bush Administration's determination to abuse their power to hide the truth and silence, smear or demote their critics."

A spokeswoman for the Army Corps of Engineers, told the Times that the action against Greenhouse was approved by the Army.

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LETTER ISSUED BY REP. HENRY WAXMAN (D-CA); SEN. DORGAN (D-ND), SEN. LAUTENBERG (D-NJ)

We are writing to request that you investigate the Secretary of the Army's decision to remove Bunnatine Greenhouse, a career civil servant in the Senior Executive Service, from her position as principal assistant for contracting for the Army Corps of Engineers. The decision to remove Ms. Greenhouse from her position and demote her appears to be retaliation for her June 27, 2005 testimony before Congress.

In her June 27 testimony, Ms. Greenhouse detailed her objections to improper and potentially illegal conduct in the award of contracts for Iraq reconstruction projects. Specifically, Ms. Greenhouse objected to the contract awarded to a Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg, Brown & Root, to restore Iraqi oil infrastructure. Ms. Greenhouse testified that the contract award process was compromised by improper influence by political appointees, participation by Halliburton officials in meetings where bidding requirements were discussed, and a lack of competition.[1]

On July 14 - less than three weeks after her testimony - the Secretary of the Army approved Ms. Greenhouse's removal. The dismissal is to take effect on August 27, 2005.

At the hearing, Ms. Greenhouse testified that she had been warned by the acting general counsel of the Army Corps of Engineers that her appearance before Congress would not be in her best interest. She testified nonetheless because she had exhausted all internal avenues and believed she had an obligation to bring her concerns to the attention of Congress. The Secretary's action appears to be the retaliation that she was warned about.

Ms. Greenhouse first raised questions about special treatment for Halliburton in 2003, when she objected to the five-year term of the no-bid, sole-source Restore Iraqi Oil contract. On October 22, 2004, the Army referred Ms. Greenhouse's allegations of procurement irregularities to the DOD Inspector General. The Acting Secretary of the Army further ordered that any adverse personnel action against Ms. Greenhouse be suspended "so that Ms. Greenhouse remains in her current position until a sufficient record is available to address the specific matters [she] raised."[2]

The DOD Inspector General's office has confirmed to our staff that its investigation of Ms. Greenhouse's allegations is "open and ongoing."[3] The Inspector General's office indicated that it has not provided any findings or final report to the Secretary of the Army regarding Ms. Greenhouse's allegations. Indeed, the office further told us that it is working with the Department of Justice regarding potential prosecutions relating to the Halliburton contracts.[4]

Given these facts, the sudden dismissal of Ms. Greenhouse appears highly suspect. The appropriate procedure would be to wait for the results of the ongoing Inspector General investigation. In fact, this is exactly what the Acting Secretary of the Army ordered last October. No explanation has been provided for the reversal in policy and the rash dismissal of Ms. Greenhouse.

Retaliation against employees for providing information to Congress is illegal and entirely unacceptable. Ms. Greenhouse has given Congress important information essential to our oversight of waste, fraud, and abuse. Instead of turning a blind eye to improper conduct, Ms. Greenhouse worked within her own agency to object. When her internal objections were dismissed, she raised her concerns with Congress. These actions to protect the integrity of the procurement process and prevent the waste of taxpayer dollars should be commended, not serve as grounds for dismissal.

We ask that you conduct an investigation into the decision to remove Ms. Greenhouse from her position. We also request that you reinstate Ms. Greenhouse pending such an inquiry.

Originally published on Monday August 29, 2005.

 


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