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I-TEAM | How military families feel about housing settlement

Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 7:41 PM EST
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-TEAM is digging deeper into a criminal case involving the private company in charge of military housing on Fort Gordon, Balfour Beatty.

As we first told you, a few days before Christmas, Balfour Beatty filed paperwork in federal pleading guilty to defrauding the US military. The company agreed to pay more than $65 million in fines and restitution for their crimes. Meredith Anderson has been exposing problems with this same company for more than a decade. Local military families tell her, they do not feel like this settlement is justice because they won’t see a dime of this money, even though they are the ones who ultimately paid the price.

Fines levied after a decade of reports by the I-TEAM at Fort Gordon

As WRDW has reported, it all started in 2011 when six-month-old Evelyn Shelton stopped breathing. Years later, Michaela Hall rushed her son Tavoris to the emergency room in 2019 for what Hall described as “shortness of breath. Scared me to death out of my sleep.” The adults on post told the I-TEAM then, they were also sick of being sick.

“There was this, like, orange stuff, running down the walls,” said a woman we called Carol back in 2019, as she wanted to remain anonymous.

For a decade, we’ve been talking to families living on Fort Gordon who told us over and over similar stories, one person summarizing the struggle as “I wish that we had lived anywhere else.”

Collecting photos, combing medical records, and now after years of reports both from our I-TEAM and those before congress, there is proof it wasn’t just bad business. In this plea agreement, Balfour Beatty admits some of its actions were criminal.

It’s 24 pages long, but the department of justice pretty much sums it up in in one sentence.

“… instead of promptly repairing housing for U.S. Servicemembers as required, BBC lied about the repairs to pocket millions of dollars in performance bonuses.”

Deputy Attorney General Lisa O. Monaco

The guilty plea and settlement specifically reference 2013 to 2019. Col. Shaw Pick arrived at Fort Gordon in July 2020.

“You know, from my seat as the Fort Gordon Garrison Commander, the challenge is that happened before either myself or any of my housing leadership team were here at Fort Gordon, so it’s kind of a rear-ward looking settlement issue….I would hesitate to even comment. I would just let BBC speak for themselves on it.” The I-TEAM asked, but BBC did not wish to speak with us.

In the more than ten years we’ve been covering the deplorable housing conditions on base, Balfour Beatty has only agreed to sit down with us one time.

Last spring, Rick Taylor joined our conversation with Pick virtually. “Are we being more transparent than we have in the past?” asked Taylor. “Perhaps, but it’s good that we do…” This time, Taylor declined an interview and forwarded us a news release that included an apology reading “the company apologizes for the actions of communities to all its stakeholders.”

He also acknowledged the fines and restitution “communities will pay a total resolution amount of $64 million comprising approximately of $33.6 million in penalties and $31.8 million in restitution.”

Military housing outreach group, fort leaders react

Sarah Lynne Kline is the co-founder and community outreach director of The Armed Forces Housing Advocates, a non-profit helping military families affected by housing issues.

“I think they got off incredibly easy. With a slap on the wrist. It was completely how we see white collar crime in America… It’s not just about mold, it’s about radon, pesticides, ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act), accommodations and issues, window falls. Asbestos is a new one that we’ve really gotten a lot of campaign complaints about.”

Balfour Beatty isn’t just Fort Gordon’s landlord; it also handles housing on more than 50 other military installations. Kline says the scheme outlined in the plea deal is nothing new. In 2019, a former Balfour Beatty employee, who asked to remain anonymous, warned the I-TEAM that problems were not getting resolved. The lack of oversight is something residents like Dorothy had long told us on the record.

“The maintenance really doesn’t do their part. The contractors definitely do not do their part. So, if you have a circle full of people not doing their part and not held accountable, this is what you get.”

On top of that, 75 percent of 1,072 homes on post are considered legacy which is a nice way to call them old; and in some cases, not up to current housing codes. “You can only maintain something that old for so long, at an acceptable level, before it just starts to maintenance costs, you start to eat you alive.” explains Pick. Which is starting to happen on Fort Gordon. Pick says anywhere from 100 to 150 homes sit empty now for that very reason. Meanwhile, crews could break ground soon on a brand-new neighborhood. It is the one that was supposed to be built this summer, before Covid and astronomical building supply prices took his 76 planned homes down to 30.

Colonel Pick opted to wait to bring that number back up. He hopes crews can finally break ground in the next few months.

Still, Colonel Pick admits 76 homes is a drop in the Fort Gordon housing bucket. “The long-term fight at Fort Gordon for housing costs a lot of money. The short-term cost is leadership, and that’s free. It doesn’t cost a dime.”

Military families still fear retaliation for speaking out

Which brings us back to cost. Over a decade of reporting, countless families have told Meredith Anderson they’re too scared to go on the record.

Some would only provide photos, or statements, or hide their faces or voices. Multiple families canceled interviews for this very story out of fear of retaliation. It’s something Sarah Lynne Kline has also seen.

“I’ve been personally impacted with reprisal in my work on this issue. I’ve helped families through IG (Inspector General) complaints when they have had reprisal from their commands. And even when you do have a great commander and you do come forward and they’re helpful, you don’t know who your next commander will be. And you don’t know how that will impact your career years down the line.”

When we asked Pick about this very issue, he was clear. If you have an issue – speak up. If you suffer any consequences, let him know. “I don’t know that every installation is lucky enough to have a col pick that really is straightforward and wants to get to the bottom of the programs,” says Kline. “I swing the biggest hammer in terms of housing on Fort Gordon. There’s no one who swings a bigger one. So that’s what I would tell every, every resident.”

“I mean, if there’s a fear of that, or if there’s proof of that, bring it to you?” Meredith asked to confirm.

“Yup,” promises Pick. Pick made that very clear. He said go to Balfour Beatty first because they are your landlord, then to the Army housing office, and then bring it to him.

Kline says her organization, The Armed Forces Housing Advocates, can also help. She also says to contact your congressman or senator if you aren’t getting anywhere. You do have layers of protection here and she is happy to make sure you know how to use them.

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