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Mold, filth linger in Fort Gordon housing, investigators find

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Published: Apr. 26, 2022 at 5:00 AM EDT|Updated: Apr. 26, 2022 at 12:39 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - Even after a military housing contractor vowed to change its ways, Fort Gordon families have lived with mold infestations and collapsed ceilings or moved into dirty houses with dog hair in the carpet and floor tiles held together by tape, according to investigators.

Those are among the findings of a bipartisan Senate investigation of Balfour Beatty Communities that was launched in August after families told Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff about the problems.

The Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations released its report Tuesday morning, hours ahead of a hearing in Washington, D.C., where senators heard from company executives and military families.

WATCH THE HEARING:

The housing problems persisted despite Balfour Co-President Richard Taylor pledging before Congress in 2019 to improve performance and prioritize the health and safety of residents, investigators say.

Balfour eventually pleaded guilty in December to fraud regarding its work order database and was fined $65 million and put on probation for three years.

The fraud had made it appear as if “maintenance issues raised by residents were being addressed in a timely manner,” according to the criminal charges filed against Balfour.

The practice led to health-threatening conditions like mold infestations not being repaired or being dealt with only superficially, according to the investigation.

The misrepresentation of the problems came with financial rewards for the company in the form of performance incentive fees, according to investigators.

Continuing problems

The subcommittee says it uncovered numerous examples of inaccuracies and omissions in Balfour’s internal work order tracking system after 2019, when the company initially vowed to correct these problems.

For example, investigators say they found instances where Balfour’s internal records show families at Fort Gordon in Georgia and Sheppard Air Force Base in Texas reported mold in their homes. Yet Balfour’s internal work order database didn’t reflect those repair requests or cite mold as the issue reported. Instead, they described these requests as being related to “internal repairs,” “carpentry” and “painting,” for instance, according to the investigation.

The investigation’s other key findings include:

  • Balfour’s staff at Fort Gordon frequently ignored or delayed responding to urgent requests from families to address conditions such as mold and roof leaks that threatened residents’ health and safety.
  • Balfour repeatedly failed to clean or to make basic repairs to homes at Fort Gordon prior to move-ins. These included requests to clean or remove carpets to accommodate concerns about exacerbation of asthma and severe allergies.
  • Significant gaps remain in Balfour’s compliance procedures. Balfour admitted that its inadequate controls from 2013 to 2019 contributed to the misconduct relevant to its December 2021 guilty plea. However, the subcommittee found that as of late 2021, significant gaps in compliance procedures continued to exist at Balfour.

Among the problems before 2019 that continued was the practice of prematurely closing work orders, which gave the false appearance of timely resolution of repair requests, investigators found. Even after 2019, there was pressure from one manager to close out mold work orders at Fort Gordon, investigators found. This led to staff making superficial repairs without making an effort to find or resolve the root causes of the problem, the subcommittee found.

Another problem both before and after 2019 was the undermining of the integrity of the data in the work order tracking system data to misrepresent Balfour’s performance, investigators found. In 2020 and 2021, Balfour managers at Fort Gordon instructed staff members to advise military families to verbally request repairs to get quicker responses, and then frequently did not log the verbal requests into its work order tracking system, the subcommittee found.

Also, before and after 2019, Balfour managers were aware of issues but didn’t correct them or weren’t able to due to the “structural oversight issues at Balfour,” the subcommittee found.

Among the examples of problems at Fort Gordon outlined by the investigative report:

  • Failures to properly remediate mold growth in military housing subjected medically vulnerable spouses and children of U.S. service members to mold exposure deemed by their physicians to pose significant health risks.
  • One child of a service member living in Balfour housing at Fort Gordon suffered from severe atopic dermatitis that her physician believed was likely caused by untreated mold growth in the home. Other families, including one with a child with a pre-existing medical condition, expressed frustration at Balfour’s lackluster response to concerns about their children’s mold exposure.
  • Military families were moved into homes at Fort Gordon with broken floor tiles held together by packing tape, clogged air vents, carpets filled with pet hair, rusting pipes and broken appliances — including a furnace leaking gas.
  • Military families at Fort Gordon lived in Balfour housing where significant water leaks went unrepaired for months, causing collapsed and punctured ceilings, warped walls, door frames and flooring, and damage to service members’ belongings and appliances.
  • According to a Balfour employee, Balfour’s facility manager at Fort Gordon stated that health concerns about asbestos are “overblown or overstated” and suggested that the employee should just “glue down” broken floor tiles that may contain asbestos without testing them for asbestos or attempting to remediate the issue.

One family’s story

The subcommittee’s report lists several examples. One was the case of “Army Family #3.”

As the family explained to Balfour in a September 2020 email, they first noticed a roof leak and reported it in May 2020. The family waited for months without repairs or a clear response from Balfour, investigators said.

Meanwhile, the roof leak continued — eventually causing a section of the ceiling in a hallway to collapse on Aug. 14, 2020.

The Balfour facility manager “continued to ignore their calls and questions for more than six weeks after the ceiling collapsed,” the subcommittee said in its report.

According to Paula Cook, Balfour’s vice president, roofs on several residential buildings at Fort Gordon needed repairs during this time period, and Balfour obtained the Army’s approval to expend funds to pay for those repairs. Cook noted that the pandemic presented challenges in getting contractors to complete those roof repairs in 2020 due to lockdown protocols at Fort Gordon, the report states.

About the investigation

In its investigation, the subcommittee reviewed more than 11,000 pages of records from Balfour. These records included Balfour’s written policies and procedures, work order data and records, emails and internal memos concerning the presence of mold and asbestos and other potentially unsafe conditions in the homes that Balfour manages for the U.S. military.

Investigators also reviewed documents provided by military families and former Balfour employees. These records included those families’ correspondence with Balfour, the maintenance requests families filed, and medical records.

The subcommittee also interviewed more than a dozen military family members and former Balfour employees. The subcommittee secured testimony from 11 executives, managers and employees from Balfour.

You can read the full investigation report below.

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