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Analysis

Parsing Parson's Excuses

We loved Monday's Washington Post story about how two years after getting a $200 million cost-plus contract from the Army Corps of Engineers to build 142 medical clinics, behemoth construction contractor Parsons has completed a mere 20. But buried deep in the piece is something we think should be tweezed out a touch more. In the story's 20th paragraph, Earnest Robbins—identified as "senior vice president for the international division of Parsons"—attempts to explain Parsons' failure by citing security concerns, holding that "security degenerated from the very beginning," and that "the expectations on the part of Parsons and the US government was we would have a very benign construction environment, like building a clinic in Falls Church."

How anyone circa April 2004 (when Parsons was awarded the contract) would have considered Iraq akin to Falls Church is beyond us. But even more stunning is that this lame attempt at spin would be offered by someone who spent 34 years in the military. That's right, Earnie Robbins is another example of the revolving door: Just four months before he took up his post as a Parsons executive in September 2003, Senior Vice President Robbins was Major General Robbins—and Air Force Civil Engineer, no less.

As one retired senior Air Force official who emailed POGO observes, Robbins' comment to the Post constitutes "an amazing statement from a retired Major General—either he's simply not telling the truth, is being disingenuous, is naive, is stupid, or all of the above." (Though, he concecedes, "perhaps it is accurate and simply underscores how little the Administration and the military really understand the real world.") Indeed, Robbins' Post remarks—as well as those in a March 24, 2005 Los Angeles Times piece on how security concerns currently bedevil Parsons' work in Iraq—do sound somewhat different than previous statements, in which his on-the-ground assessments didn't exactly reflect the view that security had "degenerated from the very beginning," especially to such a degree that work was being impeded:

Robbins on the NewsHour, June 23, 2004: "We stay on top of that through our security consultant, and again, our project managers are prudent enough to know that if the coalition forces say it's not safe, it's not safe."

Robbins in the San Francisco Chronicle, January 28, 2005:

Of course, difficult working conditions are nothing new. Reconstruction engineers have endured countless swings in Iraq's level of violence before. They are paid with U.S. taxpayer money, work for the U.S. government and say they intend to finish out their contracts. They hope the vote brings some stability.

"We want to mirror the optimism of the administration and the field commanders in that, by allowing the Iraqis to have this stake in their own future, they will perhaps step up and take more responsibility for security," said Earnest Robbins, senior vice president and manager of the international division of Parsons Corp. The Pasadena firm repairs Iraqi oil field equipment and destroys captured ammunition.

If the election triggers a civil war? "We'll look real hard at whether we belong there or not and whether the U.S. government would want to intervene," Robbins said.

Robbins in McGraw-Hill's Construction Engineering News-Record, September 13, 2004 (which notes that at that particular moment, "security is the biggest concern of all") discussing Parsons work on a security services contract:

Lt. Gen. David Petraeus...wrote a scathing letter last month recommending that security sector contractor Parsons Delaware Inc. be terminated for working too slowly. "We were spending $1.68 for every $1 worth of actual construction," says one of Petraeus's subordinates.

"The general is basically incorrect," says Earnest Robbins, Parsons vice president and international sector leader. "We have been on schedule and complying with the terms of the task order...I don?t doubt that the general, whether he uses troops or Iraqis, can get it done faster and cheaper," he says. "But he will have a difference in the end-product. We provide oversight, quality assurance and quality control. I question whether they'll have that."

How much difference there is between military-run versus contractor-run end products in Iraq is, perhaps, in the eye of the beholder. (Corps of Engineers Brigadier General William McCoy sure doesn't think there's any contest with Parsons, telling the Post "In the time they completed 45 projects, I completed 500 projects.") Whatever the case, our gimlet-eyed retired Air Force correspondent wonders how anyone would ever have expected efficiency or integrity on a cost-plus contract farmed out to, per the Post report, "four main Iraqi companies," thus creating "several layers of overhead costs" that have consumed 40 percent to 50 percent of the clinic project's budget." And he also wonders how much profit Parsons made, and whether or not Robbins got a bonus. "Hardly a surprise Parson's made out so well. These firms are full of retirees like Earnie who have lots of access and exercise a lot of influence in helping their companies with the Corps and other DoD clients," he writes. "While no one says much about it, most of the senior people on the Gov't side will retire in the relatively near term and will be negotiating for jobs with the 'Earnies' of the world."