Reprinted with permission.


Bechtel gets black marks on Iraqi school repairs
Scripps Howard News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq _ On its corporate Web site, under a page titled "A Fresh Start for Iraqi School Children," Bechtel Group showcases sparkling new classrooms filled with happy, young Iraqi students.

But the reality is far different, according to Army investigators. "In almost every case, the paint jobs were done in a hurry, causing more damage to the appearance of the school than in terms of providing a finish that will protect the structure," a recent Army investigation into Bechtel's work found. "In one case, the paint job actually damaged critical lab equipment, making it unusable."

Bechtel is one of the biggest corporate winners of U.S. contracts to rebuild Iraq. Before the war ended, it received a $680 million contract to fix Iraq's electrical grids, water ports and more than 1,200 schools. In October, it won an additional $350 million contract to continue the electrical work.

Bechtel has stressed that the schools in question are a small percentage of schools it has fixed, working in extreme conditions that often put its employees' lives at risk. Company spokesman Francis Canavan said he had no knowledge of an Army investigation, and that "every school was signed off by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers."

"However, inspection took place when school was not in session," Canavan said. "Faulty repairs did not become evident until the schools were in use." Besides Bechtel, each Iraqi school also had an Army Civil Affairs unit _ a group of reservists who often work as civil engineers at home _ assigned to help get the schools up and running. Many of the schools also had nonprofit agencies and the local Iraqi school board involved.

According to Iraqi education officials, Bechtel budgeted about $20,000 per school for repairs. That budget may not seem like much compared to U.S. rates, but laborers here work for $2 to $7 a day. Bechtel subcontracted out the work to Iraqis for an undisclosed amount.

During repairs, "reports started coming in about poor quality," said 422nd Civil Affairs Battalion Maj. Linda Scharf, who was responsible for the schools in question, and who started fielding calls from concerned teachers and headmasters.

"So I asked one of my teams to go verify the rumors," Scharf said. "They took their digital camera, and the reality turned out to be worse than the rumors."

What they found: The subcontractors Bechtel hired left paint everywhere _ on the floors, on desks, all over windows. The classrooms were filthy, the school's desks and chairs were thrown out into the playground and left, broken. Windows were left damaged, and bathrooms that were reportedly fixed were left in broken, unsanitary condition.

"Would you allow your child to use that bathroom? I wouldn't," Scharf said, pointing to a photograph of a stained, broken hole in a dirty, tiled stall. Iraqi Education Ministry city planner Israa Mohammed had received complaints from the schools, too, and tried to get Bechtel officials to address them before classes started, she said. But Bechtel officials would not attend regular education ministry meetings, or answer her questions, she said. "Because it is an American company, they didn't allow anyone to control them," she said.

For her part, Mohammed doesn't know what Bechtel spent the money on. "When we see the work, it's not like that (expensive renovations) _ it's just very simple repairs," Mohammed said.

For the soldiers who've been here since the war trying to build trust with the Iraqis, the work was insulting.

"Right now we are looking at a company who is representing the United States, doing poor work in Iraq and allowed to get away with it," Scharf said. "You see the kind of work we're leaving behind, and then of course the question comes up: Who is going to come back and fix all this?"

In response to the complaints, the Army looked into 20 of Bechtel's schools. In the Oct. 11 memo, it found that nine schools were left in "poor" condition, with no electricity or bathrooms at the start of the school year. Five were rated "fair" but still had hazardous construction material and needed minor repairs. Four were deemed "good," and two "outstanding," the report found.

On the "poor"-quality schools, the Army recommended that Bechtel immediately work with school officials to see what needs to be done. If repairs can't be made quickly in the worst-off schools, the Army recommended using U.S. funds "to ensure at least functioning bathroom facilities and running water." Now Bechtel has "received inquiries" on 40 of the schools it contracted to repair, Canavan said. It has directed its subcontractors to make repairs, and is holding 10 percent of the subcontractors' payment to ensure that repairs will be made.

When Scharf read the Bechtel response, she simply laughed out loud. And Mohammed said if she had the authority, she wouldn't hire Bechtel again. "Bechtel was working just for its image, not for the benefit of the students," Mohammed said. Beyond the paint everywhere, Mohammed said students had to pick up their broken desks from the courtyard before classes could begin.

"It's the same injustice as before (during Saddam Hussein's reign)," Mohammed said. "Students had to clean and work in the schools then, and it is the same now."

Scharf said that, "because of the work in the schools, I have come out very vocal that I will do everything in my power to keep Bechtel out of my area."

(Reach Tara Copp at coppt(at)