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A Web of Truth

Greenhouse Testifies on Capitol Hill
Bunnatine Greenhouse, formerly the highest ranking civilian contracting officer for the Army Corps of Engineers, prepares to discusss her demotion by the Pentagon during an appearance before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee on Capitol Hill Friday, Sept. 16, 2005. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook) (Dennis Cook -- AP)

"There wasn't another SES who could touch me sideways," she says.

Three years running, she was rated near or at the highest level possible in job reviews. Sample job review comments from those years: "Effective, enthusiastic, energetic, tenacious, selfless . . . ensured the epitome of fairness in Corps contracting . . . has ensured professionalism in the acquisition workforce second to none . . . made the tough decisions that reflect the highest degree of entrepreneurial and critical thought."

That should be the end of the story, shouldn't it? Isn't that the way these up-from-poverty things go?

* * *

In reality, there were fault lines developing in her job that would, during the Iraq war, blow up into national news.

Ballard once witnessed a senior Corps attorney yelling at Greenhouse in a staff meeting with such vitriol that Ballard had to clear the room to lecture the man about civility, he wrote in a 2003 affidavit. He wrote in the same document that he had been told that staff officers routinely made racist comments about Greenhouse and that they were greatly resistant to the idea of more minorities working there. After he retired in 2000, he was told that the senior attorney in question had told a director of human resources that the attorney had pledged to fire her, and he used a vulgarity in describing the woman who prided herself on being refined.

It's impossible to survey the full story of what happened in subsequent years, because most records have not been made public, and the Corps declines all comment on personnel issues. But it is clear, looking at documents requested from and made available by Greenhouse's lawyer, veteran whistle-blower attorney Michael Kohn, that her career hit an ugly wall shortly after Ballard left. Whether she failed at the larger aspects of her post or was undermined and removed under false pretenses is up for speculation.

Her new bosses said in an internal hearing that she was "hardheaded." She says she was told that "nobody likes you." She was assigned a deputy who, her superior later acknowledged, had problems dealing with "a female boss." The man eventually left after bitter confrontations with Greenhouse, but the episode led her to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging race and gender discrimination (a complaint that has never been investigated, Kohn says).

Her annual job reviews went from the best possible to the worst possible. Review panels twice instructed Corps officials to upgrade them, after concluding they were unwarranted. Sample remarks: "Needs to work harder to gain the respect of subordinates in her office. . . . Interaction with headquarters staff and field commanders is poor. . . . Attempts at counseling have been unproductive."

Ballard reviewed those appraisals in retirement. He called them "absurd" in his affidavit. He wrote that the problem was that Greenhouse was insisting that the letter of the law be followed and that when she refused to back down, she was pushed aside. (He did not return five phone calls requesting comment for this article.)

Before the war in Iraq even started, Greenhouse and her superiors were quarreling almost daily.

With the war looming, the agency wanted to award a no-bid "emergency" contract to Kellogg, Brown and Root (a Halliburton subsidiary) that was originally scheduled to last for two years -- and up to five years -- to provide a range of services in Iraq.

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