Corps of Engineers asked to explain New Orleans pump contract

Work continued Monday around the pumps and locks of the 17th Street canal at Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans. (Alex Brandon ~ Associated Press)

NEW ORLEANS -- When the Army Corps of Engineers solicited bids for drainage pumps for New Orleans, it copied the specifications -- typos and all -- from the catalog of the manufacturer that ultimately won the $32 million contract, a review of documents by the Associated Press found.

The pumps, supplied by Moving Water Industries Corp. of Deerfield Beach, Fla., and installed at canals before the start of the 2006 hurricane season, proved to be defective, as the AP reported in March. The matter is under investigation by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.

In a letter dated April 13, Sen. David Vitter, R-La., called on the Corps to look into how the politically connected company got the post-Hurricane Katrina contract. MWI employed former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, President Bush's brother, to market its pumps during the 1980s, and top MWI officials have been major contributors to the Republican Party.

While it may not be a violation of federal regulations to adopt a company's technical specifications, it is frowned on, especially for large jobs like the MWI contract, because it could give the impression the job was rigged for the benefit of a certain company, contractors familiar with Corps practices say.

The Corps' January 2006 call for bids for 34 pumps used the wording on how the pumps should be built and tested, with minor changes, found in MWI catalogs.

The specifications were so similar that an erroneous phrase in MWI catalogs -- "the discharge tube and head assembly shall be abrasive resistance steel" -- also appears in the Corps specifications. The phrase should say "abrasion resistant steel." An incorrect reference to the type of steel that would be required apparently also was lifted.

Eugene Pawlik, a Corps spokesman in Washington, said the agency is working on a response to Vitter's letter.

MWI declined to discuss how it won the contract. GAO would not talk about its probe.

Richard White, a federal contracting expert, said it is "not unheard for a spec to be copied, in particular in cases of emergency purchases."

"It's not a good practice, but it's not anything egregious, especially if the Corps allowed other companies to negotiate to change it," White said.

After Katrina swamped about 80 percent of the city, Congress appropriated $5.7 billion to rebuild New Orleans' flood protection systems. Vitter and Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., have excoriated the Corps over its workmanship since Katrina.

In his letter to the commander of the Corps, Vitter said the bid solicitation for the pumps "includes specifications identical to those written and marketed by Moving Water Industries." In addition, "the testing specifications are also identical to the testing specifications developed and authored by MWI."

A May 2006 memo by a Corps inspector working on the project, provided to the AP earlier this year, warned that the pumps were faulty and would not work if needed to remove water during a hurricane. GAO opened its investigation after the memo surfaced.

The Corps and MWI insist the pumps would have worked, but last year's mild hurricane season never put them to the test. The pumps have been overhauled and are being reinstalled.