The Builder Who Bombed in Iraq
Friday, December 22, 2006
Until this year, Parsons Corp. was about as quiet as a $3 billion engineering and construction firm with 12,000 employees could be. That's the way the firm's chief executive for the past decade -- a soft-spoken, white-haired Army veteran named James F. McNulty -- liked it.
But Iraq has changed everything.
Parsons has been reproved in recent federal audits for completing just a small fraction of the 150 primary health clinics originally planned to be built in Iraq and for building a police academy so flawed that human waste rained from the ceilings. For this, it has taken bipartisan hits on Capitol Hill, where its name is now whispered by war critics in the same breath as that perennial boogeyman, Halliburton.
Sick of taking blame, McNulty, 64, is speaking out about what went wrong with his firm's work and what he regards as the problems with how the United States uses private contractors in Iraq.
In a recent interview at the firm's Washington offices, one of a series he has given, McNulty said the government handed Parsons an impossible task by setting unrealistically high expectations for how much could be built while under-funding its efforts. McNulty said the company repeatedly pleaded with the government to either provide enough money to get the job done or scale back its goals, but said its entreaties were ignored.
"The entire reconstruction effort was much too ambitious," McNulty said. For instance, he said, his firm wanted to build a small number of clinics, some in each of three regions of the country, rather than try to do all 150 at once. "If we had built five in each region, we could have at least understood what problems we were going to face in building them," he said. "And we probably would have had 15 darn good clinics up a lot faster."
McNulty, a West Point graduate who served two tours in Vietnam during a 24-year Army career, also suggested the government needed to rethink its heavy dependence on the private sector for reconstruction, security and support in a combat environment.
The comments are unusual for the leader of a firm that makes much of its money doing work for the government. Then again, few have been battered as badly as Parsons, an employee-owned, California-based company with a six-decade track record. Since the spring, when news of the stumbling health clinic program first broke, the company's performance has been derided in the press and put under the microscope at congressional hearings. At a hearing in September, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) spoke of a $75 million police academy that Parsons was responsible for but that went badly awry: "This is the lens through which Iraqis will now see America. Incompetence. Profiteering. Arrogance. And human waste oozing out of ceilings as a result."
At the same hearing, Stuart W. Bowen Jr., special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, said 13 out of 14 Parsons projects that his office examined were flawed.
While Bowen's reports have spread the blame for the failed projects between Parsons and the government, one of the firm's customers in Iraq, the Army Corps of Engineers, has pointed responsibility squarely at its contractor.
"We had hundreds and hundreds of projects completed at the same time by other contractors. Parsons just wasn't able to meet their schedules," said Michael Fallon, a corps official who directed reconstruction programs in Iraq.
Fallon said that with the money Parsons was given to build health clinics -- roughly $200 million -- it should have been able to complete its work. The government insisted on 150 clinics, produced on an accelerated schedule, because "the country of Iraq needed health care in a hurry," Fallon said. Parsons says it finished 20 clinics before being terminated from the contract, though the corps insists just seven are operational.