Millions in Earmarks Purchase Little of Use

Rep. Murtha is a key supporter of the defense environmental center.
Rep. Murtha is a key supporter of the defense environmental center. (Melina Mara/twp - Twp)
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By Robert O'Harrow Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 29, 2007

The National Defense Center for Environmental Excellence opened its doors in 1991 with a $5 million earmark from a powerful lawmaker. Operating in Johnstown, Pa., the privately run center has received at least $671 million worth of federal contracts and earmarks since then to research and develop pollution-abatement technology and other systems for the Defense Department.

The center's researchers have examined scores of software systems and other gear, including groundwater monitoring equipment, gun cleaners and ultrasonic devices, according to its managers. They said the center had delivered nearly 500 technology products and tools to protect the environment, improve safety and cut Pentagon costs.

But a months-long examination by The Washington Post, including a review of documents and interviews with Pentagon officials, found that little of the center's work has been widely used or deployed by the Defense Department.

Only nine systems developed by the center since 2001 have been put into use at more than one installation, one standard auditors use for measuring the success of technology transfer, Army officials said. That includes such equipment as compost-monitoring technology, bullet-trap technology and hand-held computers for collecting information in the field about unexploded ordnance. Just one system made the leap from the center's labs to multiple locations in the 1990s, Pentagon auditors found.

Army officials responsible for overseeing the center, known as the NDCEE, acknowledged the shortcomings. In interviews and statements, officials said they are working hard to do a better job to identify Defense Department needs and translate the center's research into action.

"Merely showing that a technology works and is cost-effective, and placing the results in a report has not been sufficient," an Army statement said.

The environmental program illustrates the gaps in oversight that have often accompanied the government's surging use of private contractors. It also shows how politically connected programs can thrive over many years in the face of questions about performance and cost.

A key congressional supporter of the center is Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee's defense subcommittee. Murtha arranged the center's original $5 million budget and used his sway to place it in his district.

Murtha also helped start Concurrent Technologies, the tax-exempt charity that manages the center. Established in an old high school in 1988, Concurrent has grown into a contracting powerhouse. Its annual revenue is now nearly $250 million, most of it from an eclectic array of Defense Department contracts.

Investigations by The Post this year have shown that in the last four years Concurrent has received $226 million in congressionally directed funding, known as earmarks, from Murtha and other lawmakers, including those who represent districts where Concurrent has opened offices.

Murtha declined through a spokesman to comment for this article.

Concurrent's relationship with the Pentagon has come under scrutiny by lawmakers and the Pentagon's inspector general since the publication of articles by The Post. The most recent inquiry began this month by Sen. Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Finance Committee, who wants to know why Concurrent is a tax-exempt charity.

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