The Army has launched a new probe into living conditions at privatized housing at Fort Gordon, Georgia, following a scathing Senate report that found one of the military's largest housing providers continues to ignore residents' concerns about mold, asbestos and other problems, a top service official said Thursday.
Speaking to the House Appropriations Committee subpanel in charge of military construction, Rachel Jacobson, assistant secretary of the Army for installations, energy and environment, said she found the Senate report about conditions at Balfour Beatty Communities "very disturbing."
"I take very seriously any report of substandard conditions that compromise the life, health and safety of soldiers and families," she said. "The day after the report was released, I wrote to Balfour Beatty indicating that I directed an immediate investigation at Fort Gordon to be overseen by the commanding general of the Army Materiel Command."
In addition, Jacobson said the Army is auditing Balfour Beatty's property management records at Fort Gordon and suspending any requests for performance bonuses. She also asked the service's top lawyer to provide a "comprehensive legal opinion outlining all enforcement options available under the law," including "an assessment of when we can amend contracts with privatizing housing providers to give us additional leverage."
"And if we conclude from this assessment that we need additional legislative authorities to strengthen oversight and impose greater consequences, we will work with Congress toward that goal," she added.
Jacobson's comments come after the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations last month released a report, followed the next day by a hearing, that detailed residents' struggles to get Balfour Beatty to respond to their requests to remediate dangerous and unhealthy living conditions. The company provides housing to 150,000 military residents in 26 states, but the report focused largely on Fort Gordon in the home state of subcommittee Chairman Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga.
The issues detailed in the report came after Balfour Beatty pleaded guilty to fraud tied to conditions in military housing it managed over a prior six-year period.
In December, Balfour Beatty pleaded guilty to defrauding the Army, Air Force and Navy after having been found to have manipulated maintenance records from 2013 to 2019 to obtain performance bonuses as a housing management contractor. As part of the plea, the company agreed to pay $65 million in fines and restitution.
A spokesperson for Balfour Beatty did not immediately respond to Military.com's request for comment on the Army's newly announced investigation and audit. But at the hearing last month, company representatives rejected allegations of subpar living conditions and maintained that most of its residents are happy.
Since systemic issues with on-base military housing run by private companies -- including widespread mold, rodent infestations, dangerous wiring and shoddy repairs -- first came to light in a series of Reuters articles in 2018, the military has pledged to conduct more oversight of the companies. The Pentagon also issued a congressionally mandated 18-point tenant bill of rights aimed at providing military families with more negotiating power with the companies.
Lawmakers have said that they are unsatisfied with the military services' efforts to fix the issues, and the Army's latest assurances Thursday did not appear to assuage them.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., highlighted how the $1.9 billion for family housing in the Army's fiscal 2023 budget request would be a 40% cut compared to this year. Meanwhile, the Army's so-called unfunded priorities list, a congressionally mandated report on what the service wants if Congress approves more funding than it requested, includes more than $320 million for housing.
"You can speak words here, but money talks," Wasserman Schultz said. "If they are a priority, then they would be in your budget request."
Editor’s Note: After publication a Balfour Beatty spokesman responded to Military.com’s request for comment with the following statement: “We are working diligently to respond to the issues raised in the Army’s letter and will provide detailed answers to all of their questions.”
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Rebecca.Kheel@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.