Construction Woes Plague U.S. Embassies
Shoddy Work, Contract Choices Cited
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 17, 2007; A01
The new air-conditioning system in the $66 million U.S. Embassy in Mali broke down in June, sending office temperatures soaring to 100 degrees. An electrical fire erupted in the rehabilitated annex to the embassy in Rome. And the U.S. ambassador in Belize had to personally help workers sand the floors for new housing.
As the United States seeks to rapidly modernize and fortify its diplomatic missions around the world because of terrorism and other security concerns, the State Department's $5 billion construction efforts abroad have come under increasing strain. In a series of cables sent to Washington this summer, U.S. diplomats complained of building delays and shoddy workmanship, underscoring problems with State's one-size-fits-all approach to building that results in the same air-conditioning system being shipped to embassies in Africa and in Europe.
Concerns have focused in particular on the ongoing construction of the largest U.S. Embassy in the world -- the $592 million complex in Baghdad. The State Department inspector general is probing the awarding of sole-source contracts in the sprawling project, including whether they are unjustifiably expensive and whether top officials in State's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) short-circuited the process to favor particular contractors, according to sources familiar with the probe.
At the center of the controversy is the man who has run the OBO since the start of the Bush administration -- Charles E. Williams, a retired major general in the Army Corps of Engineers, who quit under fire as chief operating officer of the D.C. public schools in 1998 when a botched roof repair project delayed the opening of District schools by three weeks. State Department officials who have worked with Williams assert that the serious construction problems now coming to light flow directly from Williams's mercurial management style.
Williams is said to keep a 'bubble' management group around him, who are said to be sycophants, never questioning his decisions and always addressing him as 'General.' Such men are suspect from the get-go.
That's not an unusual culture in the Army Corps of Engineers, where Williams spent most of his career, retiring with two stars. But it's a dangerous attitude to meld with the construction business in civilian life and it sounds as if the General's military bearing may have gotten in the way of judgment.
More will undoubtedly be heard on this controversy.