Senate panel finds ‘grave’ health risks in military housing

Apr 26, 2022, 1:04 PM | Updated: 9:17 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — One of the largest providers of military housing in the United States continues to respond inadequately to mold and other structural problems, threatening the health and safety of service members and their families, according to a Senate panel’s investigation.

The allegations against Balfour Beatty Communities LLC are focused on housing provided to service members stationed at Fort Gordon Army Base in Georgia and Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas. The company oversees about 1,700 homes at the two bases.

Balfour pleaded guilty in December to committing fraud against the United States from 2013 to 2019. The company was ordered to pay $65.4 million in fines and restitution and was placed under an independent compliance monitor for three years. The Senate panel, led by Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., and Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., released a report Tuesday concluding that Balfour’s practices since 2019 mirror those that occurred in previous years.

Ossoff said that the eight-month investigation by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations stemmed from the complaints he heard from military families about their maintenance requests being ignored. He said that the investigation revealed “grave risks to the health and safety of servicemembers and their families.”

Two service members recounted their harrowing experiences with military housing at a hearing Tuesday.

U.S. Army Capt. Samuel Choe said his daughter developed a potentially fatal allergy as a result of exposure to black mold and mildew. He said his family made repeated efforts to get Balfour Beatty to fix the problem, but were “ignored, disappointed or disregarded at every juncture.” His daughter continues to break out with rashes and on her worst days resembles a burn victim, he said.

“It will haunt her as well as us for the rest of our lives,” Choe said.

Air Force Technical Sergeant Jack Fe Torres described how a mold problem persisted in a Balfour Beatty house that his family lived in at Sheppard Air Force Base. He said that after moving into the home, his wife and children experienced symptoms that included rashes, nausea, memory loss and fungal infections.

“Our military families should not be forced to live in fear of their own homes,” Fe Torres said.

Richard Taylor, a president at Balfour Beatty, said he made a commitment to Congress in 2019 that the company would get better at monitoring repairs and responding to problems. He said the company gets more than 280,000 work orders annually and that performance metrics indicate the overwhelming majority of residents are happy with their homes.

“I’m proud to say we have made enormous strides since I made that commitment,” Taylor said.

Balfour operates more than 43,000 on-base homes at 55 military bases.

Ossoff read about a dozen emails from military housing residents that included “I have a pregnant wife who is high risk and I have to live with this exposed mold on my ceiling.” Another read “death trap of a house.”

He said those emails came in after the 2013-2019 period in which Balfour Beatty had pleaded guilty to defrauding the government. Ossoff asked why lawmakers should believe that a company that engaged in major fraud has changed.

“I reject the suggestion that it’s a systemic failure,” said Taylor, emphasizing that the nearly one dozen complaints Ossoff read must be compared against the 280,000 work orders the company receives annually.

“Things go wrong. We don’t always get it right the first time. We’re not perfect,” Taylor said. “What’s important for us is that we understand where our shortcomings are and we take action to correct those deficiencies.”

The committee also heard from military housing advocates critical of Balfour Beatty. Rachel Christian, chief legislative officer for Armed Forces Housing Advocates, said the volunteer organization assists residents with mold remediation, lead exposure and other problems related to military housing.

“How many more cases of negligence, fraud and civil rights violations must we present in this building before Balfour Beatty is properly held accountable and banned from receiving further government contracts?” Christian said.

The subcommittee said it reviewed more than 11,000 pages of records from Balfour as part of its review. Staff also interviewed more than one dozen military family members and former Balfour employees, and received briefings from the Department of Defense and advocacy groups for military families.

The report concluded with a call for federal agencies to “conduct more robust oversight” of Balfour Beatty to ensure military families get the housing services they deserve.

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Senate panel finds ‘grave’ health risks in military housing